Posted by: GeekHiker | August 20, 2009

Multitasking Deficiency

If there’s one skill that I wish I could obtain, it would be multitasking.

Wait, is multitasking a “skill” or more of a “trait”?  I mean, is it truly a skill that can be learned or taught, or is it an innate trait that one tends to be good at or not?

I remember watching a documentary many years ago where researchers were testing the ability of people to multitask, concentrating on the differences between men and women.

The test was relatively simple: participants went into a room with two speakers, one on the left and one on the right, and paper and pen for writing.  Out of one speaker a fable (or fairy tale or something like that) would be read, and out of the other speaker the subject would hear a completely different story being read.

The instructions to the participants were simple: write down all the details they could.  The was no right or wrong answer, just write everything they could while listening.

The men tended to take this approach: the stories would start playing, and they would pick one of the two and start writing down all the details they could as the story progressed.  The other story they would simply ignore.

Women, on the other hand, had a tendency to take this approach: they would start writing down details for one story, then try to switch and listen to the other story for a moment, before returning to the first.  They would pick up most of the details of the first story, but would miss some story points while they were taking time to listen to the second story.

The researchers theory was that the difference was evolutionary, adhering to the traditional roles that men and women played in prehistoric times.  Men, being physically stronger and usually falling into the role of the hunter, gained the skill over time to intently focus on the task at hand: pursuing and obtaining the prey (and, let’s face it, if the wildabeast being hunted suddenly turned and became the hunter, being distracted by anything else for even a moment could have some very bad consequences).  Women, usually falling into the role as gather and, more importantly, caregiver to the young, had to be able to multitask: concentrating on obtaining food while simultaneously listening for the child’s cry or making sure the kid didn’t run away and get killed by the wildabeast.

I’m know biological anthropologist or anything, but the theory seems to make sense: with each gender doing those tasks for thousands of years, it seems logical that those traits would be of benefit to both.  (And it’s a nice reminder of the fact that we now live in an age and a country where the roles can switch just as easily.)

And it’s definitely true so far as this male is concerned: I can’t multitask worth shit.

Work is a perfect example of this.  Let’s say a server goes down.  The best thing for me to do is lock myself in the server room and focus all of my attention on fixing that server.  What creates problems for me is the constant stream of people knocking at the door, wanting to know when the server will be back up.  In fact, the most important thing for me to do when ANYTHING goes down is to get an e-mail out saying that I’m aware of the problem, in the hopes that people will stop distracting me from fixing the problem.

The reason it’s such an issue is that I have a really difficult time switching.  Taking my concentration off of what I was doing (fixing the server) to answer a question (and try to calculate, based on what I know of the problem, the time it will take to fix, assuage peoples’ nerves that no data has been lost, etc.) and then going back and picking up where I left off is, for me at least, really difficult.

Interestingly, one of my female co-workers far less problems with doing the same.  She can much more easily switch between working on a project and talking about a completely separate project at the same time.  When something goes kablooie, we divide tasks: I lock myself in the server room, she handles the people outside.

For a long time, I thought this was simply poor time management on my part, but I don’t think that’s it.  I mean, I have no problem getting projects done on time at work, organizing my day, and prioritizing my tasks based on their level of importance (or political expediency within the office, which we all know is sometimes a factor).

But working on three of those tasks at once?  Ain’t gonna happen.  Watch my head explode first.

What sucks is that we live in a multitasking world.  I mean, I can’t even write a post and watch TV at the same time, and I know people who do e-mails, texting, surf the web and watch a movie simultaneously.  And keep track of what they’re doing on each one.

Last night, after the gym, I came home from work, I fixed dinner, started a load of laundry, ate, did the dishes, batched up the cardboard boxes from work (my office doesn’t recycle, so I bring all the shipping boxes of IT stuff home and put it out with my own stuff), watched the last episode of “Long Way Round,” read a single 10 page chapter in a book and… the evening was gone.  I didn’t get a chance to watch a movie (or even part of one), read a magazine article, finish my e-mails, or work on a blog post.

Not that I didn’t try.  Sure, I popped open the laptop during “Long Way Round,” but if I wrote, I lost track of the show.  If I watched the show, I couldn’t write anything.  Happens every time I try to watch and write.

And I can’t tell you how many checks I’ve had to void while paying my bills, just because I made the mistake of trying to have an in-depth phone conversation at the same time.

To think, my Mom used to grade papers and watch TV all the time!  Wish I got that gene.

It’s frustrating, because I want to be able to do both at the same time.  Want to use the time I have to accomplish more than I am.  Working, commuting, hitting the gym… all of it takes time, so being able to accomplish a couple of things simultaneously would give me time to do more.

Or less.  Actually, being able to do more at some times would free up time to do less, or even nothing.  Give me time to think or meditate or figure out what direction I’m going in in life or something.

But by the time I reach that point in the day, it’s 11:30, and time to get my arse to bed so I can start it all over again the next day.

You know, there’s a pill for everything else, why isn’t someone working on the multitasking pill, to make up for this little deficiency?

Heck, while we’re at it, how about just a clone?  A robot or two?  All the gadgets in the Jetson’s house?  Heck, how about a flying car to shorten that bloody commute?  Yeah, we were supposed to have those by now!  I want one!


I suppose I’d better wrap up this post.  “Long Way Down” just came in on DVD, and God knows I can’t watch that and finish writing this at the same time.

Probably won’t get around to reading my book tonight, though.  Damn.



  1. I LOVE the Long Way Round. So much so that I own two DVD copies of it, the regular one and the extended one. BEST SHOW EVER.

    Amazingly, I have not seen the Long Way Down yet, but it is next on my Netflix queue…

  2. A lot of guys can’t “multitask worth shit” — my BF said he has a “single track mind” (he has to turn off the music when he needs to do some “tricky maneuvering” in the traffic, like merging!!!).

    I am a poster child of multitasking (music is almost always on in my apartment). In fact, it’s written in the job ad (actually, not in the ad, but it’s implied). However, I find that multitasking is actually a really shallow process — it SEEMS to help you cover more ground and get more done, but you pretty much only touch the surface on each project. It works when your projects are routine, mundane, or just not brainpower-intensive. When I really need to focus on something that involves more cognitive power than ranting in a blog post ;-), I have to make it the center of my attention. Music may still be on, but I must pick something that’s slow and soothing (classical, simple jazz, New Age, or old favorites I am so familiar with that I don’t get all worked up and google for lyrics or the artist or their tour schedule…).

    Here is a NYT article that confirms my view: multitasking is overrated:

  3. Counseling Today also compared multitasking to “monkey mind” with “thoughts and emotions randomly and wildly jumping from one topic to the next”

    I think your way is better. It’s focused and things get done well the first time around. Maybe you just need some heat and eat dinners so you have more time for reading and movies.

  4. Multi tasking is a great thing as long as you bring with it a memory like a steel trap. I have started 4 things simultaneously (dinner, a post, getting something ready for work and getting mck settled and in bed) and only if I’m firing on all 4 pistons do I remember to go and finish each one up.

    So while it apparently looks good on a resume, it ain’t all its cracked up to be.

  5. I have a theory that multi-tasking is why our society is ADD.

  6. I have spurts of multi-tasking that often end in several things not getting done … at the same time.

    I can surf the web and watch TV … if I have nothing interesting in my RSS reader and I’m not interested in the TV show.

    I do write better posts with music playing … does that count at multi-tasking? I doubt it.

  7. There was a study published some time ago that people who think they’re actually multitasking in our multitasking society are actually losing out on efficiency (compared I guess to finishing one task and then moving on to the next).

    The fact is that even though your anthropological theory probably has some sense to it, it doesn’t mean anything for individual cases. I’m a girl who works a lot better when I get the opportunity to focus singlemindedly on the task at hand.

    I embrace focusing because I work best that way. If it makes me feel better why fight it? I try my best to eliminate all potential distractors from my environment. No messaging services open, no websites open, turn off email alerts. I find a quiet place to work alone when I need to focus on a project. And I also have no guilt about ignoring my phone when I need to.

  8. Maybe I’m a man trapped in a woman’s body. I can’t multitask for anything. I’ve been there too, in voided check hell, also cursing my decision to pick up the phone! (But being on the phone without DOING anything else seems like such a waste; it’s so tempting to keep trying!)

  9. I envy you the ability (and control) to be able to focus one-task-at-a-time.

    Sure, multitasking may not be the most efficient…but when my life answers to many masters, is it not better that I have something to show for my efforts?

    multitasking is about compromise. while it makes sense to focus at a low level (music & hmwk is a good ex), at a higher level (eg juggling home and work) is anyone really that focused?

  10. Lea – Is the extended edition worth buying? Wasn’t available in Netflix…

    K – Well, I can merge with music! But I am jealous of your ability to multitask, even if it’s “shallow” in your words. Even being able to touch on things a little bit would be helpful. Maybe I just wish I could switch back and forth?

    MissMcCracken – The grass is always greener, I suppose! Funnily, I wish I had more time to cook!

    CMACC – I’ve often said my mind is more like a steel sieve! And without multitasking, how on Earth would you raise the kid?!?

    Existential Beatnik – Not a bad theory, actually.

    Homer-Dog – I can’t even comment on blogs while watching TV. Oddly, though, I’ve never tried writing with music on…

    Woc – Well, like all theories, there are always exceptions; I think they were talking trends/majorities. Sounds like we work the same way. Too bad I can’t turn off the e-mail and unplug the phone at work, eh?

    Spleeness – LOL – Three cheers for voided check hell! I think the only thing I can do while talking on the phone is fold laundry.

    M4891 – Hard to say. Some people I know can to multiple tasks very, very effectively…

  11. GH – just think what would happen if those effective multitaskers focused? Oh my 😉

  12. i love the idea of multitasking and i do it all the time and end up half-assing everything.
    and can i say, i love the fact that you bring your paper home to recycle. i do the same thing. nice to know i’m not the only idealist.

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