Multitasking: Its Real Appeal
(Or: How to do Several Things at Once, All of Them Badly)
When I was a kid, I remember my father saying about one of my less introspective friends that “she’d go nuts if she had to be alone in a room for more than half an hour.” This was an ominous foretelling of what the post-industrial world has, in many ways, become. One way to look at that is to consider multitasking, doing several things at once in order to save time and increase efficiency. At work, multitasking may be an asset, as long as it doesn’t distract you from your most important tasks. But in the personal realm, multitasking is nothing but a way to miss out on your life. And assuming that most of the activities in your personal life are pleasurable, that’s very sad indeed.
I think our obsession with multitasking is a result of living in a society inundated with stimuli. Overstimulation is a real problem. Unless we consciously seek to shut it out, we are constantly bombarded with sensory stimuli. Television, radio, iPod, billboards, newspapers, email, the Internet, cell phones; you can’t even fill your gas tank, push a grocery cart, or use a public restroom without some sort of advertising assaulting your senses. We’ve gotten so used to all this stimuli that we can feel lost without it, and seek to create it in our own lives. Busy-ness for its own sake has become a shared cultural value for many. Thus it’s become a common perception that if we’re doing several things at once, stimulating ourselves in as many ways as possible, we’re being productive and useful.
This is, of course, a fallacy.
If we’re doing several things at once, it’s more likely that we’re doing all of them poorly, and not giving our full attention to any of them. Multitasking is kind of a chronic state of inattentiveness, and inattentiveness is a serious issue, because the stuff we’re not paying attention to is the substance of life. It’s easy to miss what’s going on in front of you and, more importantly, miss what’s going on inside of you.
We are beings, not doings. If you’re uncomfortable with simply being, you aren’t fully experiencing your life. Quiet time is necessary for introspection; introspection is necessary for awareness, authenticity, and growth. A steady diet of external stimuli causes us to miss out on all of this. There is more beauty and wisdom possible in one quiet moment of solitude than in a million moments of stimulus bombardment. This is because in that one quiet moment, a moment where you’re present with yourself, you have the opportunity to transform. In fact, this is largely what you’re distracting yourself from.
Why? Because it’s easier. Inattentiveness, distraction, focusing on minutia, or not focusing on much of anything at all, keeps us from exploring deeper questions and meanings in our lives. When we are introspective, we have to think about things we’d rather not think about: what makes us sad, what we haven’t accomplished, how we’d like our relationships to be better, god, mortality, etc.. It’s easy to avoid these things, and the distractions of modern life compound this easiness, but if we don’t take time to ponder them, then they remain unaddressed, and we make our way through life like a rudderless ship lost at sea, with no direction and no bearing, completely at mercy to the wind and weather. Easier, maybe, but infinitely less satisfying.
Have you ever seen someone out on a date answer her cell phone the instant it rings? I eavesdrop sometimes, out of curiosity, and sometimes, it’s an important call about business or children or a family emergency. But more often than not, an inane, pointless conversation ensues while the person’s dinner partner stares into space.
I used to marvel at this rudeness. I used to wonder why people would bring their cell phones everywhere with them: on walks, bike rides, picnics, dinners out, movies; why, I thought, would anyone want to be that accessible? After all, the phone is a tool for my convenience. I’m not supposed to become a slave to it. Then I realized that the cell phone has become one of the greatest multitasking tools ever created. Its power to distract from the present moment has no equal. While the cell phone didn’t create the problem, it has certainly exacerbated it. It is the ultimate tool of inattentiveness. It’s created this weird mindset that, even if we are enjoying what we’re doing, we feel compelled to stop doing it when the phone rings, especially if there are strangers around to observe. “See?” We say to them in our heads. “I am cool enough to get phone calls.” It’s almost as if it means that we’re taking part, that we’re an active member of society, or that it’s somehow a validation of our self-worth to receive a phone call.
It doesn’t mean any of these things, of course. All it means is that you’re unconcerned about being rude to the people you’re with or about being inattentive to what you’re in the middle of doing. Also, that you’ve bought into the idea that anyone who wants your attention must be more important than whatever you’re currently doing.
The deeper reason, though, that cell phones, along with all the other distractions of modern life, have the hold over us that they do is that we don’t want to be quiet with ourselves. Doing so almost certainly means facing some sort of unpleasant awareness, and who wants that? As long as we can keep busy and keep conversing, no matter how banal the tasks or conversations, we don’t have to look at ourselves. And that is the real appeal of multitasking. We get to see ourselves as productive and fulfilled even as we avoid dealing with the tough issues that will actually make us that way.
What a scam. But then, the best scams are the ones that allow us to believe what we want to believe, aren’t they?