Nov 9, 2009

Moms: The Original Multitaskers

When we were kids, we used to beat Mom at chess pretty regularly. When we were adults, she told us why. The kid was playing chess. Mom was compiling her grocery list, her dinner menu, her laundry schedule, etc etc.

Multitasking is a myth.

You cannot really focus on more than one thing at a time. Computers have parallel processors. You have one brain. If it looks like you're doing two things at once, you're really only focused on one of them. The real question is, how good are you at switching back & forth between tasks, and how many nanoseconds are lost in the switch? Young brains, some studies say, are better at switching, and so it appears that they are better at multitasking. I say it depends on the individual. I know young men who cannot switch focus to save their lives. If the house were on fire, they'd burn to death before they could take their eyes off the video game du jour. I know plenty of middle aged moms who are experts at it.

What mom doesn't juggle a multitude of pins?

Look at the hats we wear: personal valet, chef, maid, housekeeper, taxi driver, nurse, tutor, coach, cheerleader, household administrator ... There aren't enough hours in the day to do all that unless we overlap. Now we have spreadsheets, PDAs and other electronics to help us juggle our ever growing schedule. We quiz our times tables in the car on the way to school. We pick up fast food and eat on our way to sports practice.

In Home Ec class (now known as Family & Consumer Science) in high school, our teacher called it dovetailing. It's performing two essential activities simultaneously. For instance, while your cookies are in the oven, you start wiping the counters. It's an efficient use of time.

The problem, then, lies in "the moment." I've arrived at destinations barely aware that I drove there. I wasn't focused on my driving at all.


I saw a six-car pileup on the highway yesterday. I wonder how many of them were multitaskers. Today I'm going to be more aware of the present. I may even beat my son at chess.

On what are you going to focus today?

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