Before all you high-power business people join forces with soccer moms to march on my home with pitchforks and torches, let’s first define multi-tasking. It’s performing more than one functionally related, non-interdependent action at the same time. These actions may be mental, physical, or both.
Walking and chewing gum at the same time is not multitasking. These two actions have no relation and are not interdependent. They use entirely different parts of the brain with no cross-over.
Driving, however, is doing many things simultaneously: adjusting speed, staying in lane, watching for changes in the lights, road signs, cars pulling from driveways, pedestrians. Once driving has been mastered, these are a series of very closely related skills that become a single task: getting to one’s destination without incident. By the number of poor drivers, perhaps I overstate this integration of actions; there are over five million collisions each year in the U.S., and those are just the ones that are reported.
Ever turn down the car radio as you approach someplace you’ve never been before? Locating an address on a house façade while the radio is blasting tugs at closely related parts of the mental processing machinery, and that’s why we often turn the volume down as we close in on our destination the first time we navigate there—but don’t on subsequent visits.
Here’s the problem: scientists researching brain function and cognition have demonstrated through many studies that the brain can pay attention to only one thing at a time. Further investigations has shown that memory has only four boxes in which to temporarily store information relative to your tasks. That is, if you try to do five things at a time, something’s gotta give. How many times have you scurried around the house getting ready to leave and realized that, once you were in the car, you forgot one obvious thing? That was number five.
Best to show rather than tell. You have one pen—your focused attention, and four mental notebooks in which to keep track of the tasks you are performing.
Once out of bed in the morning, you begin doing things—tasks. “Go to Bathroom” may be the first.
You realize you’re out of toilet paper. So you have to close the black book:
Then open the blue:
Write in it:
On the way to the cabinet to get T.P., you see that you left a bottle of soda out on the kitchen counter. Close blue book:
Open red book:
Write in red book:
Urge is getting stronger:
Dog is scratching at the door:
Task complete. Erase task:
But then this has more priority:
That’s the first five minutes of your day… and you still didn’t get the toilet paper.
This is the way the mind works and these switches between notebooks is certainly done with miraculous rapidity, but is there any wonder why you’re exhausted by the end of the day? Your friend who digs ditches for a living scoffs when you say how tired you are, but he only has to do one task; he can’t possible understand how trying multifaceted living is.
Replace these menial tasks with more important ones. You’re driving, picking up one kid at day school, gotta get him to his play date, get another from elementary, rush her to soccer practice—will I make it?, decide what’s for dinner, you’re still driving, any book sales today?, check the website, gotta place a call to an ailing friend and make those phone calls for the church group, what was that idea I had in the middle of the night for a plot twist?. “Did I really say ‘Sure’ when you asked me to pick of flowers for Sunday dinner at your folks instead of screaming, ‘Get the damn flowers, yourself?’, I don’t get any consideration… car running stop sign, HIT BRAKES!”
At work, you’re similarly called upon to keep too many proverbial balls in the air which adds to those obligations to yourself and others you at home.
Attempting to do so many things “at the same time,” the quality of your work slips. Your performance is not up to par, and some tasks are forgotten entirely. Nerves fray. You over eat. Now you’re fat, jittery, unfocused, and miserable, but you can brag to all your friends what a great multitasker you are.
Part II of Time Management
will describe the best tact forHOW to get organized.