Effective Multi-tasking is an Oxymoron


I’ve been thinking of this blog all week, since the last of my  pre-scheduled posts went live on April 30.

And April 30 was  also my first day home after a week in Ohio where I … suffice it to say, it was a very full week.

One of the first things I did after I got home was to write out a list of all the things I had to do.   My master list.


Thanks to npr.org
Thanks to npr.org


As it turned out, not everything made it to the list. Does that happen to you, too?

While most of the 15 original “to do” items are checked off, I’m only now getting to #5:  Write next week’s blog.  It’s 9:30 Tuesday night, May 6.

My topic shall be multi-tasking

     məltiˈtaskiNG, a noun                       

  • the simultaneous execution of more than one program or task by a single computer processor.
  • the handling of more than one task at the same time by a single person.


Once upon a time, I felt rather proud that I was a good multi-tasker. Why wouldn’t I be? I had 15% more blood in my brain than my male counterparts, so of course I could handle more than one thing at a time. That’s what women did; we multi-tasked. The word held only  positive connotations for me for most of my adult life.

No longer.

These days, trying to do two, maybe even three, things at once, no matter what they are, feels like I’m playing ping pong with two, maybe even three, balls.  I need to focus on one at a time. Indeed, I want to focus on only one at a time. I want to at least enjoy the game, never mind maybe even win.

So, back to my master list.  It paints the big picture for me. From it I can do two things: prioritize and bundle.


My master list of April 30 had fifteen items on it. First, I broke the list into pieces that fit together. I  bundled numbers 1, 2, and 15, for example, since all required sitting at my desk with my checkbook. And since one of the bills was due on May 1, I prioritized; that bundle went first.  Numbers 7, 11, and 12 were phone calls. Likewise, one sitting.

There was one item that defied bundling but ranked up there in priority: I had scheduled time to talk to my husband. Imagine! Nevertheless, I bundled that one with lunch (not on the list). And, as a bonus, we got to talk again at dinner.

The remaining nine items were computer related.  Four involved the Internet.

There was the live interview that Sonia Marsh did with Kathy Pooler at noon; the Comments from my blog I needed to reply to; scheduling Twitter posts for the week, and sorting through my (60+) unread emails. I wouldn’t miss the first two (top priority). But the next two are still waiting my attention, along with typing up the minutes of the Planning Commission. I did, however, get the dog food ordered from our local food coop.


Enough of my list.


Does the idea of doing only one thing at a time seem self-indulgent? Lazy? Inefficient? It would have to me fifteen years ago.


This week I’ve been doubly aware of how addictive multi-tasking can be for me.  I don’t know how long I’ve been this way, but I was sitting watching a TV movie with my husband and I realized that I was uncomfortable just sitting and watching the  screen. I felt I HAD TO also fuss with my cell phone — email, FB, Twitter — or pick up my Kindle and read a book. I still watched the movie, but I felt I HAD to be doing two things at once.

My multi-tasking theme for this week’s blog took on a new dimension. So, I did a little Google research.

I found there have been a number of researchers looking into the downside of multi-tasking. The researchers are overwhelmingly saying we’re less efficient when we multi-task. They tell me I’m  enjoying neither the movie or the book as much as I might nor am I  as effective in social media, while I’m also attending to the TV.

When our attention is focused on one task, I learned, both lobes of our pre-frontal cortex are activated, working in tandem on that one item. We’re “in the zone,” hitting nirvana; you know the feeling. We’ve connected.

Add a second task and that pre-frontal cortex splits (essentially) with each side taking on one task. As long as those two things are related, all is well. Our brains are plastic; they adapt.

We can mop up the spill that four-year-old Jimmie just made while continuing to keep an eye on two-year old Beth.

But add a third — two-month only Billy woke up from his nap (was it because the phone rang; probably) — and “errors” begin.

REMEMBER, this is if the tasks are related.  When we try for just two unrelated tasks at the same time — say, driving my car and reading that new text message that just came in — errors occur. Errors, when one is driving, are called accidents.


But here’s the even scarier-than-accidents-part. Our brains may be plastic, say the researchers, but they are not elastic. They don’t snap back into place quickly. So, the longer we engage in prolonged multi-tasking, the harder it may well be to stop.

“The longer we do it, the harder it is to not do it.”

That, in my world, is a definition of addiction. Am I addicted to multi-tasking? Thinking of my behaviors just this past very busy week, I wondered. And I knew there was only one way to find out. For this week,

  • If I’m to watch a TV show  in the evening, something I can do to show solidarity with my TV-watching husband, I’ll no longer have my cell phone or my kindle within reach.
  • When I eat my breakfast, I’ll not check my email on my phone, I’ll pay attention to my food.
  • When I drive my car, I’ll no longer initiate phone calls.  (No more, “Hi, I’m driving to … Thought this would be a good time to chat.” Nope.)
  • When I come upstairs to work on my computer, if my plan is to write, I’ll not even open up my browser.
  • I’ll check email three times a day, at set times. And not when I’m otherwise engaged. Same with FB, Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, LinkedIn …  No wonder my life is in overload.

I’ll not be as active on social media as a result. But maybe what I’ll be doing, when I am there, will be more valuable.

I’ll take notes. Will I go through withdrawal? Will my social media presence flounder? Time will tell.

How about you? Are you a proud multi-tasker? 




9 Responses

  1. frank Moore
    | Reply

    A multi-tasker by necessity — NOT by inclination. Also not proud, just somewhat exhausted.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh Frank, I hear you. Sorry as I am that you’re exhausted, I’m still glad to hear from you. Your situation is not unlike mine when my kids were small, and necessarily demanding. I remember yearning for a sabbatical! i won’t assume to offer you any advice. Just know I appreciate all that is on your plate. And I send my regards to Rose.

  2. Marian Beaman
    | Reply

    I’ll bet most of your readers can identify with thisdilemma. This post was perfect with lots of information–Who knew women’s brains had a 15% more blood supply than men! But what I found most engaging was your tone: exasperation mixed with humor.

    I confess to being both a list-maker and multi-tasker. And I probably “bundle” though not always consciously. I definitely prioritize. And I notice Kathy Pooler’s interview with Sonia Marsh stayed at the top of your list–great!. Also I see you are involved in the community too. I remember meetings with the Planning Commission during our Wal-Mart struggles.

    Does lifting light dumb-bells while watching silly TV count as multi-tasking? Okay, I’m a multi-tasker. But proud? Not sure about that, Janet.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Oh how I wish I could remember to do my stretches while watching TV. That’s a multi-tasking goal I’ve long set for myself and just never seem to remember. Probably need to watch more TV! Good you have you here, Marian. I’d love to hear more of your Wal-Mart vs. Planning Commission days. I recall teh McDonald’s that went into the town where my boys grew up only got in when they agreed NOT to have an arch. And, they have genuine brass door knobs and kick plates! That was a strong Planning Commission in those days. (Ohio years). Take care.

  3. Sherrey Meyer
    | Reply

    For years, as a single working mom, I multitasked in every phase of my life. Then I remarried, inherited two stepchildren plus my one, continued to work fulltime, still multitasked. By the time, I reached my 40s, 50s and early 60s, I was still balancing hearth and home with work, but no longer had too many kids to balance. Multitasking didn’t slow down because with the advent of technology we were supposed to be able to do so much more. Have you ever seen an attorney watching his assistant multitask? For the attorney, it is pure entertainment — how much can we get out of this resource? For the poor “resource,” it’s pure mania.

    I still multitask, much like you’ve written above, but proud? I daresay I would admit to anyone else the multitasking history of my life. But here you have it! Now try blackmailing me with it if you like, but I’ll deny every word. 🙂

  4. Kelly Boyer Sagert
    | Reply

    Interesting that you wrote this . . . I’ve been thinking about how I want to slow down, to not feel as though I’m rushing through everything, trying to get all done . . .

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Kelly, Welcome back. That’s just how I felt when I first returned home this last time. Something had to “give.” How good we both have our writing to help us figure it out. “Time to smell the roses” never sounded less cliche-ist, huh? Now, how would you edit that one? 🙂

  5. Janet Givens
    | Reply

    Hi Sherrey
    My lips are sealed. 🙂
    What really got me this past week though, was when I didn’t have to multitask, yet I seemed unable (or at least unwilling) to not! Hence my little experiment this week. Thanks for adding your thoughts to the pot.

  6. […] promised, I am reporting this week on my little experiment to stop multitasking. Read about it  here if you missed […]

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