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Sunday, May 01, 2011

Queen of Multitasking

I'm writing this article, watching TV, talking on the phone and drinking my coffee. I've always done more than one thing at a time. I believe myself to be the Queen of Multitasking. In fact, it's hard for me to only do individual tasks. Just the other day I was scanning the aisles of Walmart, reading my shopping list and talking on the phone. To my friend I said, "Lettuce." She asked, "Let us what?"
People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves," said neuroscientist Earl Miller. He said, "The brain is very good at deluding itself.
You're not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly."
At a lab at the University of Michigan, researchers are using an MRI scanner to photograph test subjects' brains as they perform different tasks. Two red items were shown to the man, so his brain searched for which one was larger. Then the subject was shown a green item; the brain had to decide which item was more important. The MRI showed the brain pausing before responding. It had to store information about the red item and search for what information it had stored about green items before deciding to focus on the green. 

           Miller says, "Part of the brain that does this is called the "executive system." It's a bit like one of those cartoon conductors telling the orchestra: louder, softer, faster, slower. You come in here. You be quiet for a few measures."  

  Peter Bregman tells about a study which showed that people distracted by incoming email and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQs. What's the impact of a 10-point drop? The same as losing a night of sleep. More than twice the effect of smoking marijuana.
Doing several things at once is a trick we play on ourselves, thinking we're getting more done. In reality, multitasking slows our productivity down by as much as 40%. We don't actually multitask. We switch-task, rapidly shifting from one thing to another, interrupting ourselves unproductively, and losing time in the process.
We need to learn to do one thing at a time. Otherwise, we are putting too much stress on our brains, and this keeps us from concentrating on what we are doing. If we devote more energy to doing the single task at hand, we will have more energy to finish that task. 
How not to multitask is a difficult task. Realization that you need to channel your focus is your beginning. It is better to set aside small chunks of time to work on a task then  to do several things at one time and not finishing any of them in a timely or efficient fashion.

Some multitasking is inevitable:
  • Bouncing baby on your hip as you fix dinner.
  • Yelling at kids while driving.
  • Playing fetch with Fido while reading a novel.
  • Tending to Farmville while talking (texting) on the phone. 
Multitasking is not thinking of one thing and doing another. My mind works out many plot problems while I'm sweeping the living room. Multitasking is doing one thing and then switching, to another task and then coming back to the first. 
To finish this blog, I turned off the TV and hung up the phone. I finished it in half the time it normally takes me to write a blog. I am less stressed—okay, I am still somewhat stressed—over the tasks that I need to accomplish before the day ends, but I feel good about my accomplishments so far today.
What multitasking chores do you do at the same time? How does this effect your writing? Would you have less stress if you concentrated on only one at a time?

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  1. Cher'ley,
    You have summed up so well the most common challenge of multi-tasking.
    This is a post to share!

  2. Thank you Patricia. It sure hit home for me. I'm trying not to do that so much today, but I have to confess I have 9 windows open at this time and I just got off the phone with my daughter.

  3. Dang, that's interesting! Although I've always claimed I'm more of a grasshopper to get stuff done, jumping from one thing to the next and forgetting what I was doing originally. This is a reminder to slow down and FOCUS. Thanks!

  4. Grasshopper is an interesting concept. My husband says my attention span is...Oh, butterfly.

  5. This is impressive. I figure that all these bookmarks that I have on the computer, which I constantly check, keep me going. You see, without them, I'd have to concentrate harder. Does this mean I need to focus?

  6. LOL Barb-I have so many bookmarks that I need bookmarks to find them. I don't know if I've ever actually gone back to any of them besides my own.

    I depend on email notices. But seriously, if checking them keeps you from being productive...

  7. Anonymous4:55 PM

    Huh... thats somethine I told my wife for years,one thing at a time.

  8. I used to read and watch TV at the same time. Sometimes I still write and watch TV. But I know my best writing happens when I’m not distracted. Sometimes I think that multitasking helps me procrastinate. I’m pretty sure it does.

  9. Hmm Anonymous-that sounds familiar. Gemini Writer--I'm doing that now, but when I really get into writing the TV fades into the background. Sometimes doing different things, helps my mind sort through my story.

  10. Anonymous7:08 PM

    Multitasking! My mother made me finish what I started no matter what the subject was. Finishing a project, reading a book, doing chores. Mother's motto was you started it, you finish it! So I do one project at a time. I concentrate on what I am doing at the time. When there are interuptions, I stop. Take care of the interution. Then I finish the task at hand. So be flexable, things get done.

  11. That's amazing Rita, I didn't know anyone still did one thing at a time, but it is the best way. Mother knows best.


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