Skip to content
Photo by Thomas Habr / Unsplash

How I finally accepted multi-tasking

It had been there for years, but I had never noticed it.

Until one morning when I found myself with a telephone receiver tucked under my neck while I talked with an acquaintance, a computer mouse in my hand while I surfed the Internet, and a pile of snail mail in front of me that I scanned between web page downloads.

My power of attention had suffered a serious blow and I didn't even see it coming. I suddenly realized: The much-vaunted act of multi-tasking had settled in me. It unnerved me a bit, so I watched myself for a few weeks and discovered that I could hardly do anything without wanting to do something else at the same time.

Sure, there were exceptions. Sex, for instance, could still keep my attention. I'm guessing an armed robber with a psychotic laugh and an AK47 could, too. I could also stay focused when checking my investments.

So sex, fear, and money. Those things could demand single-task attention.

But in nearly all other activities, the urge to be doing another thing at the same time was there.

Why do we multitask?

I don't know when it started. I think I've had the multitasking disposition for years. Even back in college, when leisure was life, I kinda liked doing laundry because I could study at the same time.

I'm guessing multi-tasking was stamped on my upbringing.

It isn't surprising. I'm an American, and I was raised with conventional American ideas of good living, like a penny saved is a penny earned, God helps them that help themselves, and never leave until tomorrow that which you can do today.

Those, of course, are Franklinisms. Ben also wrote, “Lose no time, be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary action” and “Time is money.” His little sayings gave us, to borrow from D.H. Lawrence's observation, “the pattern American,” one concerned with cleanliness, orderliness, and industriousness. Over fifty years later, de Tocqueville would marvel at Americans' pre-occupation with efficiency and practicality. In the twentieth century, George Santayana would observe that the American is obsessed with money and “is practical as against the poet, and worldly as against the clear philosopher.”

Multi-tasking is as American as General Motors. It's terribly efficient: If we do many tasks at once, we get more done. If we get more done, we make more money. Perfect.

Of course, stupid multi-tasking can actually cost us time. It's the old “haste makes waste” phenomenon. If you drive down the road while searching in the back seat for your socks, you're probably gonna end up costing yourself a lot of time at the hospital, repair shop, and courtroom.

But ordinary multi-tasking – talking with a friend on the phone while doing the stair stepper and listening to the TV news – that's time-efficiency heaven.

I'm guessing Old Ben would have loved it. Back then, though, multitasking wasn't feasible. When you had to harness a horse, you had to work: with your attention and your muscles. I betcha Ben tried to harness his horses while barking orders to his servants and taking notes for an essay, but he probably stepped in manure.

Technology: Gas on a Natural Fire

Technology has taken away the manure. I recently heard of a guy who orders a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon while the head on his Guinness settles. Back in the old days, before bottled beer, he would have had to wait three minutes before getting his buzz started.

Even though technology makes multi-tasking more feasible, I believe the temptation to multi-task has always been with us. The most amazing multi-tasking ever comes from the life of G.K. Chesterton, a very laid-back and decidedly un-technological fellow living at the turn of the century. They say he could dictate a book to his secretary while writing an article with his hands. Even Sybil couldn't do that.

Rich people have always had the ability to multitask. They could make their servants do something while they did something else. That time-honored form of multi-tasking was one of the best because you could tilt the tasking in your favor: “Josh, you go clean out the stable while I make love to my wife.”

Today, we can all be as good at multi-tasking as Josh's master. Sure, my wife gets a little annoyed when I take a cell phone call during an intimate moment and is liable to cut off my multi-tasking (as well as other things), but the point is: It is possible, thanks to the technological advances over the past fifty years.

I think technology brought us the first group of effective multi-taskers: the housewives of the Ozzie and Harriet era from the mid-1950s to the early 1970s. The housewives could launder, cook, clean, and give instructions to the children at the same time. It wouldn't have been possible without the affordable appliances the post-war economy cranked out.

Sex could still keep my attention. But was all that efficient multi-tasking a good thing? Did it possibly lead to bad things? The harried housewife, perhaps? The caricatured mother with the phone ringing, the baby crying, the pot boiling over, the laundry on the floor, a pistol in her hand and pointed at her head? Did it contribute to Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and the subsequent flooding of the marketplace with a female workforce?

The Effects?

The media maven of the 1960s, Marshall McLuhan, consistently hammered home one point: The media is the message. What did he mean by this? Precisely: All forms of media (defined as things that enhance our abilities) have an effect on us. Moreover, they often affect us in ways we don't perceive. The mere act of absorbing images and sounds from TV, for instance, changes how we think and live in ways we don't see. The thing we're conscious of--the content we've selected, The History Channel or MTV--is largely irrelevant.

When I found myself constantly desiring to multi-task at the office, it startled me.

When I sat back and started watching myself, discovering that I had the urge to fill every moment of the day with two or more functions, it disgusted me.

Then during those days when I was watching myself, I discovered that I was scarcely able to read a book for more than five minutes without looking up and checking my e-mail or favorite websites and message boards, or without calling to my children to see how they are doing, or without doing something to break up my reading. A favorite pastime had stealthily become arduous.

It scared me.

My power of attention had suffered a serious blow and I didn't even see it coming. Looking back, I know my multi-tasking obsession with my Internet connection caused it (or at least contributed mightily to it). McLuhan would knowingly chuckle to hear my story.

But I wasn't chuckling. The crippling of my power of attention was frightening. In addition, I recalled Simone Weil's observation that, “In the intellectual order, the virtue of humility is nothing more nor less than the power of attention.” If multi-tasking cripples the power of attention, does it also cripple humility, the first of the virtues, and its close sibling, concern for the other?

If I return a call to a friend from my car even though the reception will probably be poor and I'm liable to lose the signal, am I placing efficiency first or him? When we surf the Internet while talking to someone on the phone, are we showing him or her much concern? When that first generation of multi-taskers, the housewives, fled for the office, were they thinking of themselves or their children?

Efficiency and the things it brings – control, money, success – is the American way, but that doesn't make it the right way. Do we go for efficiency and control, or do we go for others and humility?

Whether we know it or not, we confront that particular question dozens of time each day, with the urge to multi-task and otherwise. On it rests the difference between a good life and a poor life. Perhaps also between salvation and hell.

As for me, I'll continue to multitask. I'm too much of a Ben Franklin American not to, and there's nothing inherently evil about it. But I am going to scale back and use discretion, approaching it like I might a cabinet of fine liquor on a free Friday night.

And the next time I stop to smell the flowers, it won't be with a cell phone in my ear.