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the myth of multitasking

National Public Radio has recently had several articles about multitasking. Essentially, it's a myth.

We can't actually do two things at once but switch very quickly from one task to another. You may say this amounts to the same thing, but I don't think it does. The researchers who were interviewed noted that neither of the tasks being worked on in a multitasking situation are done very well. That is, if you can't be entirely present to a thing--driving, a conversation, eating, reading a book--neither you nor the task will benefit. More to the point, in the above-referenced story, it was found that drivers who were talking on the phone (hands-free or not!) had the same affect as drivers just over the legal limit of alcohol. You simply cannot concentrate on both things at once but switch your attention between the two. If you're talking on the phone, you're not paying attention to the road. And let's not even get into texting while driving--no one I know does that...especially not myself...

That multitasking is a myth is both obvious and epiphanic. Of course we can't really do more than one thing at a time, but we've been getting away with it for so long, calling it better productivity or higher efficiency, that it feels like we can. Yet when I heard the story, it cut right into my marrow. I know full well that my attention is not on the road when I'm texting...that is to say, when I'm talking on the phone. I know full well that typing an email while talking to my Loving Husband on the phone means the email takes twice as long and probably has to be rewritten and Loving Husband gets the benefit of long, awkward pauses. I know full well that attention is what God calls us to.

Anthony de Mello was Jesuit priest who wrote many books about the spiritual life. One of my favorites is Awareness, his lectures about paying attention to the world, to our souls, to our justifications for what we want to do rather than what God is pushing us towards. In the very first chapter, he writes:

Spirituality means waking up. Most people, even though they don't know it, are asleep. They're born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up. They never understand the loveliness and the beauty of this thing we call human existence.

It's brilliant and abrasive and eye-opening. Every time he says "Wake up!" I physically start. Our lives are so fast-paced, so unfocused, so overwhelming. We don't help things by trying to be more efficient--all we're doing is sinking deeper into sleep.

I have stopped talking on my phone in the car. Texting, too. I am trying to focus on one task at a time, doing it well, and moving on to the next thing. It's hard to retrain myself, but so far it's been worth it.