Posted tagged ‘Charles Emerson Winchester’

Multitasking: Charles Emerson Winchester was right

May 30, 2014 you want something done, they say, ask a busy person. But not a person doing several things at once. The results will probably not be either terrific or timely.

Until very recently, that goddess with multiple arms was the deity of working mothers and American commerce in general. How inefficient to do one thing at a time! Why go to bed at 10 when you can stay up working until 11, 12, 1 am? We boast about reading email while dashing to a meeting or cooking a meal while negotiating a deal and chasing an unruly child. As if that’s a good thing.

To cut down on those lengthy hours, or at least to get more done in general, Americans multitask. It’s a badge of honor. And it seems to work: We are the most productive people on the planet, according to sociologists and economists. Our productivity has skyrocketed in recent decades.

But at what cost? And individually—rather than in terms of GDP—how productive are we, really?

Not very, says Brigid Schulte, the Washington Post reporter who recently wrote Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time. “Studies find that your brain literally cannot pay attention to two things at the same time with equal weight,” she says. “You’re not giving either thing your full attention. So instead of doing one thing well, you’re doing two things poorly.”

Like walking and chewing gum at the same time, as the old joke goes? Or driving and texting, perhaps? (Crash.) Maybe we’ve known this for a while without wanting to admit it.

Many people can write while playing music at low volume. When Washington had a smooth jazz station, that worked well for me. Anything with words collides with the words in my head. Unfortunately, that includes commercials. So now I work without musical accompaniment unless the work is something I don’t have to think much about—brainless collecting/gathering, for instance.

A much bigger distraction is right there on the computer, though, lurking behind the project of the hour. “I’m a sucker for Facebook, a sucker for checking my emails, a sucker for reading other blogs and a sucker for just about every other random thing you can do on the Internet,” writes Joe Warnimont of the blog Writing With Warnimont. “If this sounds like you, check out ZenWriter. Like bug spray, it’s a repellent and not a deterrent, but I was amazed at the software’s ability to shut out all my usual computer distractions and allow me to focus on writing.” Other possibilities I’ve heard of are Freedom, WriteRoom, and JDarkRoom.

To underline the point: As bestselling novelist Jonathan Franzen once said, “It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction.”

But my purpose here is not to discuss distractions, exactly; it’s to discuss multitasking and how its inherent distractions keep us from doing a good job on any one thing. We have one main task at any one time, whether it’s researching a project or driving to a destination. The new thinking is that it’s not more efficient to accomplish two or more tasks at once (because we’re really not)—rather, like Major Winchester on M*A*S*H, we should do one thing at a time, do it very well, and then move on.

Partly for all the positive reasons, and partly to avoid negative consequences. When people have too much on their minds, they start losing track. This is stressful. Things go wrong. This is more stressful. (Lorraine Feather wrote an entire song called “Where Are My Keys.” Spoiler alert: She never does find them.) “Stress is literally the most toxic situation for your brain,” Schulte wrote in the Washington Post Magazine. The Yale Stress Center did MRI brain scans and found that people who experienced stressful events and perceived constant stress had 20 percent smaller brain volume than people who were not stressed.

No wonder Lorraine can’t find her keys. She did come up with a good song about it, though, which makes me think she must have relaxed, meditated, lowered the music volume, kept electronic time-wasters to a minimum, exercised, had fun with friends, and taken the other advice out there for lowering stress.

At the top of most of those lists: Stop multitasking!

Copyright 2014 Ellen M. Ryan. All rights reserved.