The Multitasking Myth


This last week, Illustrator and author Tasha Tudor died. Early in her career, she published a book that allowed her to buy a derelict farm in Vermont where, for the last sixty five years, she's lived a lifestyle pretty indistinguishable from one typical of any early 19th century inhabitant of rural New England. Her neighbors considered her a crackpot. Her kids were embarrassed to be seen with her when they were young, though three of them adopted her lifestyle as adults.

But few of us achieved publishing success early in our career and even fewer aspire to step back into a time before our handy, time-saving gadgets. A friend gave me the most wonderful gadget. Called TV B Gone, it's a key ring-sized little button that turns off televisions. Waiting for a flight, trying to read but distracted into multitasking mindlessness by the murmuring CNN Airport News on the overhead television, one click of my TV B Gone and the screen goes dark, the speakers silent. I only wish they had such a device for the background music so thoughtlessly provided by restaurants, coffeehouses, and bars. One surreptitious click of my Tunes-B-Gone, and I can actually hear and focus on what you're saying instead of what the atmosphere is fogging.

Where was I? Oh yea, multitasking. Seems that this gift that some people claim to have and the rest of us wish we could do better is a myth. Like so many other beliefs: good children, skillful parenting, happy families, predictive planning, multitasking belongs in the museum of capabilities that exist in name only. The effect that makes you a dangerous driver when you yak on your cell phone makes you a dangerous boss when you multitask at work. “Attention Deficit Trait” is now rampant in the workplace, which itself has become as clouded by distracting din as any foundry—less noisy but just as cognitively distracting.

What to do? Wrong question. Perhaps the right question is, "What not to do?" I could prescribe turning off the television, but if you're easily bored, you'll probably turn on the radio or find someone to call. We medicate ourselves with distractions. Our brains feel clever when we shift focus between five simultaneous tasks. Worse, we sense that transcendent tingle of subtle awareness that convinces us that we really, really, really are doing the impossible several things at once. Achieved the juggle. No balls dropped. Someone should put us on stage.

Is this feeling just an illusion? Couldn't the science be wrong? Perhaps others are dumbed down when they walk and chew gum, and I --- probably you and I --- are the odd, reassuring exceptions. For we seem genius to ourselves, wizard to each other, and productive beyond imagination.

Read this and weep, cowboy. The pony bucked us both off again. Link to article

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