There’s a fascinating article by Walter Kirn in November’s Atlantic Monthly, called The Autumn of the Multitaskers. It basically argues that trying to do multiple things at once is a fad of the current era, possibly caused and definitely accentuated by conceptualising the brain as a computer. And further, it seems it’s not good for you. There’s a level at which this appeals to me, because I’m very bad at multitasking. Unless I carefully prepare myself for it, I have difficulty switching from one task to another without a few seconds of blank staring in between. And if I do the preparation, then neither task is really done to the best of my ability.
There’s an argument that this is a problem most men have; women seem to multitask better. I can barely walk and engage in a sensible conversation at the same time; many women seem to be able to do both as well as, for instance, send a text message. I don’t know many men who can multitask well.
This is somewhat belied by the fact that as I write this, I have earphones on and am listening to my current favourite genre of epic metal music, and am holding two IM conversations at the same time. The music, however, isn’t really a distraction; it’s partly in use to block out surrounding conversation and noise from the workplace, and partly to make me comfortable - I’m not actively listening to it. The two IM conversations are about prosaic, day-to-day items in the workplace. Neither of them is requiring much from me other than quick bursts of information I have no trouble recalling.
Part of the Getting Things Done method that I’ve been trying, with some success, to stick with, is a principle that having other stuff in your head, background tasks, prevents you from getting on with the ones in hand. The solution there is to dump everything you can think of out to a set of lists, where you can come back to them later. In other words, you can concentrate better if you’re not multitasking.
In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the narrator is a bit horrified by a motorbike repair shop where it’s clear that the employees are doing more listening to the radio than concentrating on their work, with poor work being the result - and moreover, it’s poor work that they’re not aware of; they think they know what they’re doing, and doing a good job.
I don’t know if I believe that multitasking is bad for you, but it’s an interesting line of thinking.