The Myth of Multi-Tasking: Laser Sights v Scattershot 

It’s kind of weird how something you hear that is seemingly unimportant sticks with you and actually becomes influential in your life. Many years ago, I was buying a printer-copier and the salesperson was asking me what I planned on doing with the machine: did I want to print text? photos? copying? faxing? And he told me that the more things the machine does, the fewer things it does well. This idea has stuck with me for literally fifteen years because it’s also true about us: the fewer things we are doing, the fewer things we are doing well.  While people like to brag about being able to multi-task, the reality is that people cannot multi-task.  We are just jumping back and forth from one task to another.  It looks like we are doing many things at once but what we are really doing is bouncing around.  The more we bounce around, the more chances there are to miss something, the less time we have to focus on each task and so there are fewer things we do well.

When I worked for the Boss From Hell, she insisted that everyone in the office multi-task.  I was used to bouncing from one task to another, most of which were scattered on my desk, but it really bothered our associate who much preferred to concentrate on one task, do it well and move on to the next task.  Another great truth I learned at that job: really smart people know we all work differently and let others work the ways that work best for them but insecure people micro-manage out of fear of losing control.  This is exactly what happened at the Job From Hell.  While multi-tasking isn’t my preferred work method, I am used to bouncing around.  Frankly, it comes with being a secretary- er, legal assistant:  I have to drop what I’m doing to answer the phone or the door and deal with whatever/ whoever just dropped into  our laps.  I also have to keep an eye on what I was doing at the time and what is next on my list.

While lawyers also have to do a little of this (emergency motions, client crises or a sudden call from someone you’ve been waiting for), most of that outside noise and interference has to get by me first.  (My boss’s callers think he’s the busiest guy on the planet because he’s always in a conference or on a courtcall!) What’s really going on is that he’s working on a project (someone’s demand or lawsuit) and doesn’t need the interruption.  While this is a good thing, in that it allows him to concentrate and do his best work and actually work faster, most callers don’t really understand that he’s in the middle of a project because we have all be taught that we “need to multi-task!”- He needs to take their call now!

The Associate at the Job From Hell hated being forced to multi-task.  He hated being interrupted when he was trying to concentrate and whenever he protested, the Boss would just screech at him about multi-tasking. He used to point out that multi-tasking is a myth, since the brain can only focus on one thing at a time. (Since he got his undergraduate degree in microbiology from UC Davis, I tend to agree with him!) I didn’t need much convincing, since I was already of the opinion that, like most machines, the more things we do at once, the fewer we do well.  I’ve seen evidence in my work when there are misspellings and wrong names/ words used in documents because someone interrupts me while I’m working.  This is why I am such a fiend about proof-reading! (I even hate finding errors in my blog posts!) Mistakes happen when we are distracted, and really that is what’s happening when we are bouncing from one task to another: we are being distracted by other tasks we are supposed to be working on.

This doesn’t mean that we should stick to doing one task at a time; most of us can handle a little bouncing around, especially if we’re parents.  I know I do a lot of it at home: putting something on the stove, letting the dog out, filling their water bowl, responding to a text, sorting through the mail, etc.  It’s a normal way of life! Women are usually stereotyped as being better at multi-tasking than men since in hunter-gatherer societies, women did the gathering, child-minding and house/ camp-keeping.  Men were out hunting.  One task for the men and many tasks for the women.  I don’t know how true that is since I’m guessing there’s more than just “one thing” when it comes to hunting, but this is what society has loaded us with.  It was the Boss From Hell’s justification for why the Associate wasn’t good at multi-tasking: he’s a guy!

This idea that we should and can be able to multi-task is a problem when it comes to losing weight and eating better, especially if we are new to it.  It is one more thing we are doing on top of everything else going on in our lives.  It should be easy.  The ‘experts and professionals’ keep telling us that it is easy.  I will tell you that it does get easier, especially if you have been doing it for a while.  It gets a bit like driving a car: the stuff you can do without thinking about (like keeping the car in the lane, slowing for a turn) gets shoved to the back of the brain while you focus on the important stuff, like the car in front of you cutting you off.  Once you know what you normally get at restaurants and supermarkets, you don’t have to struggle so much over which foods have sugar and what entrees are full of carbs or vegetable oils: you learn the brands and the foods that work best for you and it’s like staying in your lane. That way, you can stay focused on the harder stuff, like keeping your scheduled workouts when other things start crowding your schedule.

But like anything else, the more things you have clamoring for your attention, the less attention gets paid to those smaller details.  I have learned the hard way that when I am on the phone with friends while I’m shopping, I am more likely to come home with things I didn’t intend to buy and really don’t need.  How did it happen? “Oooh, is this new? what’s in it? chat chat chat (and it goes in the cart and in my bag and then I get home and) how did this get here? It’s not good for me!” It’s simple: I was distracted and wasn’t paying attention.  I was ‘multi-tasking.’ This is what happens when we get stressed either by something demanding our attention or when our schedules change unexpectedly: the things that were pretty routine and didn’t take a lot of time and attention suddenly get ‘lost in translation.’ We forget about them because they were so automatic before or they just get pushed out of the way: we miss a workout because something else is now in that timeslot and then our workout never makes it back on our schedule because it’s Friday and ‘that’s not a workout day.’  We were bouncing from one task to another and, because our focus is somewhere else, suddenly we realize we are out of our healthy routine- “how the heck did that happen? I know this! I had this! This should be a no-brainer by now!”

Before you start kicking yourself for screwing up, don’t even go there! Stop and think about everything you have on your plate right now, even the ‘no-brainer’ stuff, like picking up the kids from school; paying the bills; putting gas in the car; keeping and making appointments for the family, the pets, yourself; things like grocery/ shopping lists; getting the car serviced; and other little things, like birthdays, anniversaries, returning family/ friend phone calls.  Anything special going on like a wedding or graduation? It’s that time of year! Planning a vacation or long weekend? It’s that time of year too! And that’s not including everything you have going on at work! And on top of all of ‘normal life,’ you’re trying to eat better and keep your workouts.  “Let’s see: I can get in a workout after I get the tires rotated and picking up Mom and Dad’s anniversary gift on Tuesday and then I can get in another one on Saturday after I drop the dog at the groomers and before Jeffery’s soccer game that afternoon. Oh, yeah! I got to pick up the dog too!”  Welcome to the Real World! This is why so many people start out with great plans to eat better and get more activity and then fall flat on their faces.  It’s a lot to juggle and juggling is not only hard (you try keeping all those balls in the air!) but it takes a heck of a lot of determination (ha- you thought I was going to say ‘practice’ didn’t you!)

I’m saying determination this time because we are inevitably going to screw it up now and then.  When that happens, we can either give it up or we can keep it up: it’s our choice. But when we tell ourselves that we’re doing something wrong or there’s something wrong with us, that’s when we usually give up in confusion and frustration.  The only thing ‘wrong’ is that idea that we can keep adding task after task onto our lists and schedules and expect them all to fit in and if they don’t, it’s because we aren’t ‘good enough.’  Not true! There are only 24 hours in a day, seven days in a week and 52 weeks in a year: we cannot fit in every task we want to do or even need to do, no matter how good we are at ‘multi-tasking.’  Those who are good at it learn to prioritize: what needs to get done now, what can be done later and what can be done when we have time (those are my categories anyway, for better or worse).  Sometimes we have to ask for help (can you pick up the dog so I can hit the gym?) or sometimes we have to let something go (looks like I’ll have to do skip that kombucha class I wanted to take). This is where I will challenge you to keep yourself a priority: you might not be one of the ‘things that need to get done now’ but do not put yourself as one of the ‘things to get done when I have time.’ When you are tempted to drop yourself off your list, remember: when you feel better and are healthier, you are a better parent, better spouse, better friend and better employee.  Short-changing yourself means you are short-changing everyone else in your life.  You may not have to learn to juggle your schedule, but a little bouncing might not hurt too much, and when the balls start dropping on you, take a deep breath and try again! You are worth the effort (and so is everyone else in your life!)

 

 

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