Do you ever watch TV while you’re doing homework? Listen to a podcast or music while driving? Talk on the phone while cleaning your room? Text or scroll while hanging out with friends?
If so, you’re probably familiar with the practice of multitasking — doing two (or more) things at once. Or, at least, trying to.
In “Stop Multitasking. No, Really — Just Stop It,” Oliver Burkeman writes about why this practice doesn’t really work:
A few months ago, I was teetering on the brink of feeling overwhelmed by life’s responsibilities, afflicted by the ambient anxiety that seems to be an intrinsic part of life in the 2020s. In an effort to maintain — or maybe restore — my sanity, I embarked on a personal endurance challenge.
Other people, at similar moments, begin competing in grueling triathlons, or head off on intensive meditation retreats. Me? I decided to give up listening to podcasts or music while running, or driving, or loading the dishwasher, or doing almost anything else. To just focus, in other words, on what it was I was actually doing, one activity at a time.
It was surprisingly hard. Once you’ve finished mocking me for treating such a trifling alteration to my habits like a grand existential struggle, I have one request: Try it. Identify the small tricks you use to avoid being fully present with whatever you’re doing, and put them aside for a week or two.
You may discover, as I did, that you were unwittingly addicted to not doing one thing at a time. You might even come to agree with me that restoring our capacity to live sequentially — that is, focusing on one thing after another, in turn, and enduring the confrontation with our human limitations that this inherently entails — may be among the most crucial skills for thriving in the uncertain, crisis-prone future we all face.
The essay concludes:
The uncomfortable truth is that the only way to find sanity in an overwhelming world — and to have any concrete effect on that world — is to surrender such efforts to escape the human condition, and drop back down into the reality of our limitations. Distracting yourself from challenging tasks by, say, listening to podcasts doesn’t actually make them more bearable over the long term; instead, it makes them less enjoyable, by reinforcing your belief that they’re the sort of activities you can tolerate only by distracting yourself — while at the same time all but ensuring that you’ll neither accomplish the task in question nor digest the contents of the podcast as well as you otherwise might.
At work, the way to get more tasks done is to learn to let most of them wait while you focus on one. “This is the ‘secret’ of those people who ‘do so many things’ and apparently so many difficult things,” wrote the management guru Peter Drucker in his book “The Effective Executive.” “They do only one at a time.” Making a difference in one domain requires giving yourself permission not to care equally about all the others.
There will always be too much to do, no matter what you do. But the ironic upside of this seemingly dispiriting fact is that you needn’t beat yourself up for failing to do it all, nor keep pressuring yourself to find ways to get on top of it all by means of increasingly extreme multitasking.
Instead, you can pour your finite time, energy and attention into a handful of things that truly count. You’ll enjoy things more, into the bargain. My gratifying new ability to “be here now” while running or driving or cooking dinner isn’t the result of having developed any great spiritual prowess. Rather, it’s a matter of realizing I could only ever be here now anyway — so I might as well give up the stressful struggle to pretend otherwise.
Students, read the entire article and then tell us:
How often do you multitask? What are some common situations in which you find yourself trying to do multiple things at once?
If you are a multitasker, why do you think you do it? Does it actually help you focus? Does it make getting through a painful or boring task a little easier? If you are not a multitasker, why not?
Mr. Burkeman writes that we’ve “long known that multitasking doesn’t really work.” Does that statement surprise you? Do you think that multitasking works for you? Why or why not?
Mr. Burkeman writes, “Distracting yourself from challenging tasks by, say, listening to podcasts doesn’t actually make them more bearable over the long term; instead, it makes them less enjoyable, by reinforcing your belief that they’re the sort of activities you can tolerate only by distracting yourself.” What do you think of that statement? Do you agree?
Do you think that practicing more presence in your daily activities could help you feel less overwhelmed and anxious, as it did for Mr. Burkeman? Why or why not? If you’re up for it, try the challenge of focusing on just one activity at a time, even for one day, and report back on the experience.
Students 13 and older in the United States and Britain, and 16 and older elsewhere, are invited to comment. All comments are moderated by the Learning Network staff, but please keep in mind that once your comment is accepted, it will be made public and may appear in print.