I don’t think anyone twisted my arm in the business environment and forced me to adopt the misguided notion of “multi-tasking”, which first showed up on the business landscape in 1965, referring to the capabilities of an IBM System/365 computer.
Someone thought it wise that we emulate machines. We can’t count on the corporate world to safeguard our health or sanity. Health and sanity are not metrics on a P&L.
I count myself guilty of including a line on many a job description such as “Must be good at multi-tasking”. I have included such a line on my own CV.
While it was a popular aspect of being an efficient executive time manager (picture the staff of Sorkin’s The West Wing, bustling about, juggling air strikes and whip counts while flirting and mugging as they walked) the practice and its promised benefits have been debunked by all manner of scientists and psychologists, and some studies show corporate America losing two-thirds of a trillion dollars annually due to multi-tasking (Matt Richtel, NYT, 2008).
But the expectation persists, and, in my view, no, it is not “caused” by e-mail any more than workplace misbehavior is “caused” by workplaces being co-educational.
But nobody made me do it. My penchant to please superiors, an over-active brain and insufficient awareness did that for me.
I have trained myself out of some of it, and have become selective and sequential doing tasks, but there is another aspect to this affliction that I need more attention to and practice with. I avoid, as much as is practical, choosing to do more than one thing at a time. I am comfortable asking others to wait until I can attend to their need or question.
But I remain a fully addicted planner and commentator. I often am doing while thinking about the doing or the next doing. I just now rolled the trash cans out to the street through wet, brilliant white snow and sorted out where I will publish and post this piece, all in my head. Surely I missed something about the snow.
As a writer, there is an added aspect to this addiction. All too often, as I am doing something, in my head, I am writing about it. It reminds me of a quote I cannot find the exact words to, from Nathaniel West, (either the graphic artist or the author) that goes, roughly, “Tracing the shadow of the hand that traces.”
While I am not actually doing the next thing, I am mentally and physically preparing for it. Unloading the dishes, I know I will sort my laundry next. I have broken a few dishes this way. Driving home, I feel the pull of exactly how I will enter the house, where I will put things away I acquired in town, the email reply I need to do, (but first I’ll grab a chunk of that good brie) and the sequence of responsibilities needing my attention before I can watch Rachel with a glass of wine. I only have twenty minutes. Go!
While planning and project management are fully worthwhile standalone activities, if done consciously, but when done in conjunction with other tasks, the combination leaves me unfulfilled and separated from my life. Like I ate the menu.
The cure is easily said, difficult to realize. Doing just this one thing, even if it is planning or reviewing, right now, all by itself, is that cure. Lists and calendars help as well.
For me, fear drives this. I think that fear is deeply held, that I will drop the ball, forget to do something I promised, let someone down, or worse, be embarrassed. Be ashamed. Not be seen as the image of Geoff I created for myself. That guy who gets stuff done.
This cure involves trust. In reality, there is little chance I am going to forget to pick up milk in town, or call my brother.
I need to practice this trust, all day, as well as remembering that the expansive intimacy with my own life that is available by doing just this one thing shines so much more brightly than the unlikely possibility of forgetting to put my pants on before leaving the house.
That intimacy is at once deeply tactile and textural while feeling like free fall.
What’s the worst that can happen?