It was Sunday morning 8:00 a.m. Church started in twenty minutes, and we lived five minutes away.
As usual, we were going to be late.
We only had two boys at the time—two year old Britton and six month-old Sam.
Normal parents bathe children at that age. However, I went a little long reading the sports page that morning, so while Christy assembled diaper bags in the kitchen, I multi-tasked to get the job done.
All three of us hopped in the shower.
Sam was at the stage where he would stay wherever you put him (good boy!), so my plan was to place him in a safe spot in the shower while I focused on Britton. My plan unraveled quickly.
As soon as I sat Sam down and looked for some shampoo, Britton was already skipping in a circle around Sam … and peeing on him as he skipped. Part of me wanted to yell at Britton, but I mean Sam WAS a stationary target and we were in the shower. Rookie mistake on my part.
Having wasted precious minutes already, I threw out the plan with the bath water … but it was almost the baby.
I lathered Sam up and quickly rinsed him underneath the shower spray. I now understand the term slippery when wet. Sam shot out of my arms like I was pinching a watermelon seed. In a split second, I clamped my knees shut as a reflex and looked down—expecting to find Sam lying there hurt on the shower tile and Britton adding insult to injury by resuming his earlier antics.
Instead, Sam smiled up at me, wedged precariously between my knees, but alive and well.
I cheered out of relief. Christy came into the bathroom. “Sounds like a fun shower!” “Here they are!” I scooted Britton out and planted Sam on the bath mat. I stepped back into the shower to cry.
That morning, I found out that multi-tasking isn’t worth it.
Research confirms that multi-tasking is an inefficient and ineffective way to approach tasks. As I pondered whether this revelation was true or not, I answered three emails, made two phone calls, threw the tennis ball to the puppy, and looked at my reflection in my cell phone to pluck a nose hair before I finished my thought on this paragraph.
Studies confirm that it truly is impossible to multi-task EXCEPT when the tasks are routine, such as walking and talking. When one of those tasks requires thought, however, the brain cannot perform tasks simultaneously. Don’t believe me? Try to run an obstacle course and carrying on a conversation.
Instead, what we often think is multi-tasking or “toggling between tasks,” the brain sees as sequential processing.
I did my own little experiment on this recently. I spoke a few weeks ago to graduate students on corporate culture, and since this wasn’t my first rodeo, I knew the students would have their laptops on their desks. Prior experience taught me that holding students’ attention is difficult with alternative means of entertainment right in front of them, so I flipped the field. I had them look up websites as part of the lecture, thus reducing their ability to flitter off. I asked the students if they preferred a power point presentation or the approach I used, and nearly all said that this method kept them engaged and focused.
Here’s the take home message.
Although we think that we can perform simultaneous tasks well, the truth is we cannot. The brain always, always puts tasks in a sequence. Every time we leave a task before it is finished and go out of order, we are really asking the brain to start over and “re-sequence” again. That leads to two problems:
We are asking the brain to pick up right where we left off, thus using more energy and losing effectiveness, and
We risk losing information previously secured.
In other words, we actually take more time to do something, and we make more errors—particularly as we age. As a recovering multi-tasker, I offer these indicators and solutions for your inspection.
INDICATORS that you might multi-task too often:
1. The fruits of your labor are few. Make a list of the projects that you have accomplished recently. If the list is short, something is distracting you.
2. You want to fix strategy instead of fixing execution. I am guilty of this. I want to figure out the best way to do something rather than doing it and then evaluating. The latter is way more productive.
3. You practice the Hokey-Pokey approach to tasks – that is, you put your left foot in, you take your left foot out. Without commitment and focus, we never really go all in so the work remains unfinished.
SOLUTIONS that may help
1. Batch schedule your time – block off time for specific tasks rather than just make a simple to do list. If it is on a calendar, it is more important.
2. Mornings are for the most important task – need to accomplish something important. Do it first thing in the morning, and don’t quit until you finish.
3. No distractions while working – turn off TV, radio, email, and put your cell phone in a different room or in your desk drawer. I know, now I’m just talking crazy.
If you are tempted to multi-task, remember the words of Jim Elliot: “Wherever you be, be all there.”
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