The Multitasking Conundrum

Kevin Drum asks: “After writing a couple of posts about multitasking, I’m curious about something: how good are you at multitasking? Which is to say, how good do you think you are at multitasking? And what kinds of things to you multitask at?”

As a member of the multitasking generation, a great lover of gadgets, and a professional in a multi-tasking oriented line of work I confront this all the time and I have to say it turns out that for me at least genuine multitasking is almost totally unworkable. I actually figured this out when I started listening to audiobooks rather than music while walking to work. Sometimes when walking I’ll see something that gets me thinking and I realized that there’s a kind of active thinking process (“huh, that building finally took the CVS sign down and put up a Living Social ad”) that’s incompatible with paying attention to the spoken text of the audiobook. With music, I don’t have that problem. I can (and do!) listen to music while pondering, listen to music while writing, listen to music while reading, whatever. But I can really only carry out one linguistic function at a time—I’m reading, or I’m writing, or I’m thinking—and so I need to decide what’s what.

I’ll be 30 in a month and I hear that the kids these days think they can sit in the back of the lecture hall and listen to their professors while futzing around on Facebook. I can’t pull that off, and I actually doubt that you can too if you really scrutinize it.

But I’m never totally sure what it is that people mean by “multitasking.” Does switching between tasks rapidly count? I do that all the time. A little reading, write a post, respond to some emails, send some tweets, then do it all over again. That seems inherent to the life of the professional blogger. And I do think it’s scrambled my brain a bit, insofar as I find it much harder now to read long books than it was when I was in high school. But I’d actually say the main casualty of the increasing diversity of amusements is that I watch a lot less random reruns on television than I used to. Long story short is that I think people ought to try to distinguish between switching between tasks (useful as more kinds of tasks are invented) and actually trying to do multiple things simultaneously, which seems to me to be a fool’s errand.