In a recent comment by Suzanne Simonovich, she asked me my opinion on multitasking, and why it could be bad for you.

(hmm, karla thoughtfully intones as she scratches her head in curious pondering while the wheels inside her head creak their way out of the recent mental inertia they’ve been in lately.)

Multitasking is quite the sought after skill, and arguably the second most widely used descriptor on hopeful resumes, right? a la the “skilled effective multi-tasker;”

(#1 being, of course “great people skills” or its variant “I’m a people person.” Woe be to the unfortunate fool who doesn’t claim outstanding people skills after all! )

It’s funny Suzanne would ask this right now. I was with my daughter at the library recently, and while glancing about, there was a display on books about improving one’s memory. I’ve been sort of feeling like I could stand to improve my short term memory. I’ve come up with several crutches, most of which are perfectly useful and justifiable, and frankly come highly recommended by places like the book, Getting Things Done. Why, after all, should I hold lots of unneccessary stuff in my short term memory, keeping me from giving my full thought processes on higher thought patterns? Makes perfect sense, I thought to myself. And what I hadn’t already intuitively picked up for myself over the years, I added to my crutch toolkit, with delight.

And yet, that darned multitasking thing really does call for some better short term memory.

Who’s waiting in the pharmacy? Which order needs to get completed, waiters or not, to be ready for the delivery driver’s next stop? When will I get back to this question? Will I remember to make that phone call…sometime today? And any number of other priority making decisions large and small. What can I afford to hold in short term memory when I have to stop the thing I’m doing in that moment to do the next high priority thing, and what must get written down? Most of these decisions are quite obvious, but once in a while, something that should have gotten written down doesn’t, discovered after my short term memory has let me down, and a customer service misadventure ensues. Or sometimes I’ll write it down and then feel silly because it was so easy to remember and wonder if I wasted time by pausing to write myself the needless note?

Well, anyway, what I’m trying to get to, is that multitasking, for me anyway, is an increasingly humbling experience as I continue to get older and the world around me gets increasingly complex. The books I checked out on memory improvement brought a little expert opinion to that observation, that indeed, as we get older we lose our ability to learn things as rapidly, including holding things reliably in the short term memory, and to multitask while learning. The author related an anecdote which reminded me of myself as an adolescent, describing his teen studying calculus while having his ipod plugged in. The author went on to joke that he couldn’t imagine studying calculus in anything other than a soundproofed padded cell, and here was his son, successfully absorbing and learning while, in a sense, multi-tasking. I can remember that ability to study to music as a youth and college student, but I sure wouldn’t try it now!

I hear about college students having their laptops open for note taking and surfing the net, and getting criticized for their inattentiveness. And yet, they learn.

My elementary-aged kids doodle during the service at church, and yet they’re picking up on the essentials, and frequently the particulars of a bible story, or an accessible joke in a sermon. Indeed, they can seem to multitask fairly well.

So does this mean we who are no longer fresh college graduates are a lost cause? That we cannot compete with younger, multitasking, quick learning young adults? I don’t think so, and I don’t think the experts do either. We need to pull out our crutches and our compensations that we’ve collected over our years. But that’s what the older generations have always done, even in low-tech times. This is just another way to put our experience and dare I say it, wisdom, to work for us. I probably write myself more notes than some of my coworkers. Oh well. Maybe it takes me a little longer to take back up where I left off. Oh well.

(Easy to say “oh well” now, with no work-related pressures bearing down on me.)

Do I think multitasking decreases our efficiency at a given task? Oh, sure! Without a doubt. If I can choose between timing my work for my more challenging tasks when I have my best energies and could have the option of single-minded concentration at them, you’d better believe I do so! In my line of work, multitasking has always been the name of the game. Some of our patients call their orders days ahead of time and that allows us to distribute our work flow, best matching our staffing and energy levels. We work on their orders in between our non-planning patients and our acutely ill ones. And the telephone calls. And the questions by my coworkers, and the quite pleasant social chit-chat of patients who have completed their business transactions with us. Oh, wait a sec… when’s the last time someone checked the email and voicemail? … “Karla, there’s two messages on the doctor line.” “Dang, I was so close to FINALLY finishing this large order…”

You can probably see where this is going. I get interrupted. A lot. They say on those sentimental customer service plaques that a customer is never an interruption. Of course that’s true, but when your work isn’t linear and orderly and prescribed, if it’s not a state of being interrupted, it sure is “stopping and starting” a lot. That can be maddening. It adds to my stress level undoubtedly. A “negative spiral” perhaps? It takes a whole lot longer to complete a given patient’s order when I have to stop and start it multiple times. Much like what Suzanne says about focusing on the task at hand and “getting it right the first time” there’s a great deal of pressure to be perfect. You don’t want to get the mortgage or the bottle of pills that wasn’t right the first time, do you?

Keeps me humble and saying my prayers, what can I say! <smile>

Anyway, that’s one reason mail order outfits that lack a storefront can do so much greater volume. Or look at the difference in efficiency between a well-run assembly line and one person assembling the same item start to finish? That’s single-tasking taken to a finely-honed engineered level! You can do a single task, single-mindedly, repetitively much more efficiently that starting and stopping. But it takes more employees to cover all those single task jobs, if you’re not at a certain cut-off point volume-wise.

And there’s the rub, isn’t it – in these times of cutbacks and greater expectations and pressures to do the same amount of work with fewer resources and/or staff.

Multitasking’s effect on us has much more to do with the expectations and pressures put upon us from outside and within than the mere juggling of several divergent and competing tasks. Given enough time, I actually thrive on the variety and ability to make choices about my work and its variety. It’s the removal of choice and control that leads to anxiety. I could go on and on, but I’ll quit for a time.

Questions to consider and comment on: What kind of work do you do? If you could choose would you choose to do more or less multitasking?

Would love to hear from you! Peace, Karla


2 Responses to Multitasking!

  1. mtinnkeeper says:

    multi-tasking is a way of life here.. I think i’ve been “hard wired ” that way :) and i just got thru thinking… slow down to go faster and get it right first time… focus on the front sight

    blessings and shalom

  2. karla says:

    Welcome, gp! Sorry I didn’t check for comments more recently – my family just returned from an AWESOME trip to Disney World in Florida. (we’re in Wisconsin, so it was a two-day car trip each way, with 5 days in Florida. FUN!)

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