Single-Minded

Confessions of a Recovering Multitasker
September 5, 2013

The other day I phoned a good friend and—in a shocking development—I didn’t cook while we talked. I didn’t do laundry. I didn’t dust shelves or water plants or cut my toenails/clean the oven/hunt for lost cat toys. I was just too pooped, for a change, to do anything but sit in a chair and yak with my buddy Faith. How was her work going? Which colleges was her daughter applying to? As she caught me up on all her news, a long-forgotten sensation came over me—one I couldn’t place at first. Something to do with my head. And my ears. Uh-oh. Was I getting a migraine? No, this was a good sensation. It felt like… wait! I had it! I was actually hearing everything Faith said.

After we hung up, guilt crashed in as I thought of how my phone conversations with friends often go:

Friend: So how are you guys?

Me: We’re great, thanks! Busy, you know, but we’re—hang on. (I squint at a recipe for chicken with barley.) Sorry. OK. What’s new with you?

Friend: Oh, not much, except…

(I hunt for dill, open a can of tomatoes.)

Friend: … but he should be fine after the surgery.

Me (realizing, in a panic, that I haven’t been listening): Hello? Hello? Geez, I think my phone cut out for a minute there.

(As I focus completely on my friend, the chicken with barley boils over and catches fire.)

You might think, given such moments, that I would have sworn off dual-purpose confabs long ago. Instead I kept talking with a phone in one hand and a frying pan in the other. Everyone else was multitasking, too, after all. For each call I made at the stove, I received one from somebody who was hemming pants, making doughnuts, or (I guessed from the sounds) neutering a puppy on a helipad during an alien invasion.

We multitasked when we saw people face to face as well—combining restaurant lunches with texting, say, or family breakfasts with The Huffington Post. How could any of us do otherwise? We were busy people! If we didn’t make the most of every minute, how were we supposed to get everything done?

Then came that talk with Faith, reminding me of how rich conversations can be when they get my full attention—and inspiring me to read up on multitasking. Imagine my surprise at learning that, technically, it doesn’t exist. We can’t think about two tasks at once. Instead our brains ping-pong between them (I’ve got to find that dill! I need to understand what my friend is saying!), wasting precious seconds each time and causing errors to pile up.

No wonder I’d been botching so many phone calls. Clearly, I was a candidate to try something researchers have recommended for years: single-tasking.

Instead of half-hour conversations-with-chores, what if I tried 15 minutes of the former, followed by 15 of the latter? Heck—besides saving on brain-ping-ponging time, I could also curb damage-control time. No longer would I have to remeasure flour that I’d lost track of while talking, or remove 28 tiny screws with an Allen wrench after discovering that, during a long-distance gabfest, I had assembled an IKEA cabinet upside down. (Yes, this happened.)

Better yet, of course, chore-free chats would let me be truly present for my loved ones—and who knew where that might lead?

For starters, it led to another great conversation, this time with my mother. I called her while watching my son at a track meet—slightly multitasky, I know, but much less demandingly so than usual. The next morning, in lieu of cleaning the kitchen while my daughter ate breakfast, I plunked myself beside her and got the full scoop on her favorite episode of My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Very enlightening. Ditto for the next afternoon, when I resisted the urge to sort mail during a chat with her brother—and listened carefully as he described, in middle-school French, his class trip to Québec. (He had, I gathered, a magnificent time except when he was required to eat toes of pork.)

So I’ve made myself a promise: From now on, I’ll pay closer attention to the people I’m talking with. Not all the time—I don’t want to crash my car. But day to day, I hope I’ll be having many more heart-to-hearts than I used to. And scraping less burned barley off my stove.

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