The Myth of Multi-tasking

Last night, our dog got sick. My wife and I had already stayed awake ’til 2 a.m., because I’d had too much caffeine and she was unwinding from a difficult day. At 4, we both awoke due to a strange, powerful odor that turned out to be…well you can guess.

We cleaned it up, I walked the dog and got back to sleep after 5, to be awoken again by our son at 7, who told us the dog had done it again. We cleaned that up, we walked him around the block and went back to sleep hoping he was done. He wasn’t. More of the same ensued until we managed two uninterrupted hours of sleep, rising for good shortly before noon. I had a busy afternoon scheduled, so I’d hoped to do some writing, e-mailing and other chores, but the dog ate my morning.

I was moved to share this fascinating account when I read the Times‘ Calendar story about BlackBerry addicts. It’s been more than a year since I surrendered my BlackBerry. Probably for that reason, I missed the news of a Supreme Court ruling against manufacturer Research in Motion (RIM), creating a real possibility that all U.S. BlackBerries will be shut off in a few weeks while a big-bucks patent dispute gets worked out.

The BlackBerry’s pending demise has the potential to rival the Year 2000 bug as the biggest waste of time and money in the history of Corporate America. I can imagine the e-mail traffic from panicked executives to underlings, the desperate searches to see if old pagers work, the contingency plans scrawled on dry erase boards. Stock analysts surely are up late tonight preparing lengthy research papers for clients to read tomorrow before dawn. What will be worse for stock prices? The potential for war with Iran? Or the Great BlackBerry Blackout of 2006? In years to come, children will sit at their grandparent’s virtual knee and ask, “where were you when it happened?”

Apparently, many will answer: “In the fetal position.” From the Times:

Pamela Rosenberg actually cheered when she saw on the news that RIM was in trouble — to the chagrin of her husband, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, he of the dual BlackBerrys.

“We can’t have a nice dinner or go to a movie without him getting e-mails,” says Pamela Rosenberg. “It’s constant, all day and all night, in the middle of a conversation.” Rosenberg rues the day she made her husband promise to get rid of the laptop he once toted everywhere; that was the day he purchased a BlackBerry. “At least with the laptop he couldn’t hide very far. Now I find him hiding out with it in the dressing room closets. I have to take my hand and put it over the BlackBerry if I want to get his attention.”

In his own defense … well, actually, Scott Rosenberg mounts no defense. Guilty as charged. “We were on a family vacation once,” he says, “and everybody was having dinner. I excused myself to go to the restroom, but I didn’t use the facilities. I just went in there and wrote on my BlackBerry for half an hour. Then I came back to the table and said I had a stomachache. My uncle looked at me and whispered: ‘BlackBerry.’ “

That guy — I came close to being him. I was tethered to that thing. I checked it obsessively. I practiced how to type a BlackBerry note with my hands under the conference room table without moving my shoulders so no one would notice that the meeting I was actually attending didn’t have my full attention.

When BlackBerry messages were in the air, few conversations had my full attention. If a conversation was especially important, I had to hide my BlackBerry in my desk, lest I click it unwillingly, like Dr. Strangelove’s not-quite-suppressed salute.  Some of my associates were more brazen. “I’m totally listening to you,” they’d say, as their thumbs flew across the buttons and their faces mugged the words they were forming in their minds.  

What does this have to do with my incontinent dog? Well, only this. You who read and write on your BlackBerry while on the phone, while talking to your staff, while attending client meetings, while driving for Christ’s sake, stop kidding yourself. Technology might have given you the superhuman power to be in two places at once, but that doesn’t mean you’re “multi-tasking.”

Was I multi-tasking last night when I was cleaning up after my dog — was I sleeping and taking care of him at the same time? Well, I’m exhausted, so “no.” My dog, like your BlackBerry, demanded my attention and pulled me away from the sleep I was supposed to be getting.

After a year away from the damn BlackBerry, I’m persuaded the concept of multi-tasking is a myth with which the overbooked try to reassure themselves they’re not just being rude.

You’re not multi-tasking. You’re making a choice. If you’re helping your kid with his homework, once a new BlackBerry message arrives and you look at it, your homework aid has stopped. You’re now in the grasp of whoever e-mailed you and expects a rapid response. Quality time with your kid ends at that moment. If you’re driving on the 405 and get a brilliant idea you want to tell your client about right away, if you start typing it on your BlackBerry, you’ve effectively fallen asleep at the wheel and your car is driving itself. You know how well that works.

The human mind’s attention is the scarcest of all resources, and there are no hidden reserves of new attention you can tap, not even in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve. If you are on the BlackBerry, you are on the BlackBerry. It’s a great tool for downtime, but it takes you away from what you’re supposed to be doing if you unholster it during a meeting or a conversation — or your life.

What will happen if the BlackBerries all get shut off?  Maybe our expectations of rapid response will have to be adjusted. Maybe people will finish one task before they start the next. Maybe meetings will be shorter because everyone physically in the room will be there mentally too. Maybe there will be fewer stupid accidents on the freeway. Maybe family members will find their time together more enriching.

I’m ready to name this first decade of the 21st Century the Age of Distraction from Distraction. A few weeks off from the BlackBerry might make it a bit clearer what we’re letting these unreal rapid-response expectations do to our minds, our business encounters and our personal relationships. In the end, we might thank the Supreme Court for a healthy and timely intervention.

3 thoughts on “The Myth of Multi-tasking

  1. Do you think in the future you will have a robot to clean up the mess? Or perhaps it’s nice not to: Disgusting as it may be, you and your dog have shared a very real moment. It might be a shame to have some Mr. Clean robot zoom out of a closet to wipe away and dispose of the mess before you could even smell it!

    And is sleep itself a form of multitasking: dreaming, cell regeneration, and all sorts of other activities our bodies do to prepare for the next waking state? Perhaps Blackberries are but a crude beginning. Once we understand better how the brain functions, who knows what we’ll be able to do.

  2. Mr. Dave: Please keep us informed on all the latest developments in attention expansion efforts underway in the database software industry. There are many advertisers, public relations companies, publishers and entertainment media that would like to claim additional mindshare.

    As for your robot clean-up solution, I think that’s already available. It’s called Roomba. But believe me, even Roomba would’ve become nauseous at the spectacle we faced.

  3. Pingback: From the Desert to the Sea… by John Stodder » Put Away Your Bibles and Methadone

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