The Myth of Multitasking

In our busy, hectic days, we have to juggle many things, sometimes several at once. This has given rise to the popular term, ‘multi-taksing’ and it seems we have to do this constantly to try to keep up. But as I observe others and look at myself in the process, I’m beginning to think that there is really no such thing; it is impossible to do more than one thing at a time, at least with any reasonable amount of present awareness.

The man who chases two rabbits, catches neither.


We can only partially do more than one thing at a time, and not very well. What seems to be more likely, is that we are actually ‘semi-tasking’. We may be listening to a TV show in the background while doing the dishes and talking on the phone, but we are not hearing every word in either case. We may notice a pause in the conversation, to which we might reply, “Oh, that’s interesting…go on,” or something might capture our attention on the TV but we didn’t hear much of what was said beforehand.

The dishes are another matter, which mostly relies on muscle memory and not conscious attention. We know this from driving our cars when we take a familiar route and forget our exit, or, we pull in to the driveway and wonder how we got there. Daydreaming while doing something we have done hundreds of times doesn’t usually cause major problems, as our muscles have ‘recorded’ the action over and over and can get by on autopilot. Musicians playing a familiar piece will hardly make mistakes while their mind gets carried away, but if it’s a new piece, a loss of concentration will produce bad results.

This semi-tasking effect takes a toll on quality communication between people. Without full attention, especially regarding active listening, there are gaps in the conversation that are either ignored or filled in with something which is probably different that what was actually said. And the tasks themselves suffer because with a divided attention, something inevitably gets missed and that’s where mistakes are made. An obvious example is with texting on a cell phone while driving. With a tendency to zero in on the small device screen and participate in the texting conversation, driving mistakes are made and the results are often deadly. This practice is illegal in some states, but this writer feels it should be banned outright worldwide.

Present Moment Awareness

In many meditative practices, particularly mindfulness, the goal is to focus on simply what is. It could be your breathing, a mantra or a mental image and the point is to not allow the thought stream to get us off on a tangent. Since our minds work faster than our bodies or speech, we run the risk of ‘out-thinking’ ourselves and find ourselves making errors. In his book, “The Inner Game of Tennis,” Gallwey suggests mindfulness more than tennis technique. His students are told to say ‘bounce’ when the ball enters their side of the court, and say ‘hit’ when they hit the ball back. This is just enough concentration to keep the student from having too much time to think about the return, and usually produces better results.

Now What?

So if multitasking isn’t a thing, how do we get things done? Think of making dinner using the oven and a couple burners on the stove. You have to check on everything, pre-heat the oven, watch the pot when it boils over, turn the rice down to simmer, and so on. But even though all these things are cooking at once, you really only take care of one at a time, and shift to the next in rapid succession. Or, think of a receptionist at an office whohas to answer many incoming calls at once. She will speak with one, and tell the others to ‘hold please’ and get back with them. Yes, many calls are being fielded but really only one at a time.

So, when talking with someone, instead of nodding your head and saying “oh yes, right, um hum, interesting…” or something like that when you are really thinking of something else, just say, “hold that thought”, and then do the thing that needs your immediate attention, and jump right back in to the conversation with a “so where were we?” The interruption might not be totally appreciated by the other person, but it shows that you are indeed listening and that their thoughts are important. Ultimately this will make for better communication.

And, if you’re driving and you get a text, please pull over on the side of the road or get off at the next exit. Those few minutes ‘lost’ driving could prevent years of anguish lost to an injury to yourself or others.