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Don’t you have homework to do?
My teenage daughter is watching TV, texting, facetiming, instagramming, listening to music, and typing on a laptop all at the same time.
Don’t you have homework to do? I have to repeat myself a little louder because she is insulated in her electronic cocoon by ear buds.
“I am doing homework,” she says jerking her head upward and removing a wire that is dripping from her ear. There is an open math book next to her as well. It is about the only thing that is not plugged into the wall.
“I am multitasking,” she explains, with some degree of pride.
Multitasking, as we all know, is the ability to do two or more things simultaneously. Like reading and listening to music. Or talking and driving. Or in my case, channel surfing and drinking beer.
Some tasks are easily accomplished simultaneously because they are second nature and don’t require any concentration to complete. Like falling asleep on the couch and drooling.
Other tasks require significantly more concentration and are more difficult to accomplish simultaneously. Like just about everything else.
Multitasking is, of course, a computer term brought to us by the same friendly geeks that have given us such useful nomenclature as crash, reboot, and spam. But unlike these other useful computer metaphors, multitasking is self-perpetuating: it has become a metaphor precisely because it caused the metaphor.
Because these days our attention is sliced more and more by computer devices and the people who use those devices. Which is just about everything and everybody. We are bombarded constantly with messages and requests and information at all hours of the day no matter where we are.
If you have ever seen someone on a smartphone in the bathroom you know what I mean.
And there is no escape key to press.
To put it metaphorically then, since we don’t have the bandwidth or CPUs to parallel process, we multitask interrupt-driven processes from multiple inputs by time slicing our brains.
We divvy up our attention to all comers.
Computers multitask very well. Humans don’t. According to neurology experts, when we multitask, constantly shifting attention from one task to another, productivity suffers and we incur brain brownouts.
Personally, after a day of unabated multitasking, I just want to control-alt-delete with a strong drink.
So I get concerned when my daughter multitasks her homework. Surely her study must suffer. Shouldn't it?
The problem is that she is a very good student. And it is hard to argue with success.
Furthermore, it seems that the ability to multitask is now a highly valued skill among employers. Here is an excerpt from an actual job listing posted online: Candidate must possess strong multitasking and troubleshooting skills. Here is another: Candidate must be able to balance rigorous demands on time with attention to detail. And one more: The ideal candidate for this position has two heads and four arms.
As I was marshalling my attention to write this my computer dinged informing me that I had email. It was spam: Get tips on how to develop multitasking skills with help from an award-winning journalist who has made a career defining best practices for some of the largest media companies in North America in this free video clip.
I stopped what I was doing and clicked on the imbedded link. Up popped an online video featuring an expert on multitasking. And as I watched it, I was struck by a powerful observation. During the video the woman lecturer was not interrupted once.
I, on the other hand, had to endure a jerking video clip crammed with scrolling text and pop up ads while my phone rang and my computer pinged incessantly with incoming messages.
And the conclusion set forth by this expert? One of the most important qualities of a multitasking genius is her ability to be organized.
Since I am not a her that puts me at an obvious disadvantage.
But I get the point. Successful multitasking is not about doing things simultaneously. It is about setting priorities and managing time. It is about filtering non-essential distractions. It is about giving yourself time to really concentrate on one thing at at time amid all the requests for you to concentrate on one thing at a time.
It is about hiring an assistant with two brains and four arms.
I ask my daughter if she wants some ice cream. She is reading a book and diligently taking notes on a piece of paper. Her phone and computer are now on the other side of the room out of her distraction zone. She holds up her hand to silence me. “Ssssh. I’m studying!” she says.
But as I leave the room I hear her call urgently after me.
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