I’m a single-tasker. Listening to the radio while eating breakfast at the kitchen table is the extent of my multitasking. When I do something, or even think about something, I focus on that one thing. That probably makes me a good writer, but it also makes me ill-equipped for the modern world.
When I talk on the phone, I have to sit down and think about what I’m hearing and what I’m saying. That takes about 95% of my attention. As much as I’d like to, I have trouble doing other things while talking. This is a problem for a journalist. It took me years before I was somewhat comfortable taking notes during an interview. I had a hard time listening and writing at the same time.
Long before people worried about how mobile phones led to distracted driving, I refused to talk and drive. I knew how dangerous that would be for someone like me. I recently discovered that I can’t sing and drive either, when I ran a red light while practicing a choral performance for my church.
For years after Microsoft introduced Windows, I stubbornly clung to MS-DOS and a word processing program called XyWrite. The whole idea behind Windows – having multiple screens available so you could run several applications at the same time – spelled doom for a single-tasker like me. As it turned out, Windows was just the beginning of the multitasking culture that dominates society today. It’s a culture that’s always excluded me by default. Now everyone else seems to juggle two, three or even four things at once, while I’m still focusing on one.
Lately, though, I’m not feeling so inferior. The latest research on multitasking reports some alarming results, including evidence that multitasking makes most people less productive, not more. Some scientists even think that multitasking can rewire people’s brains, and not in a good way. Constantly juggling multiple streams of information can undermine the ability to focus and shut out irrelevant information. One study reported that computer users at work change “Windows” or check e-mail or other programs almost 37 times an hour. That’s once every minute and a half. No wonder people have trouble concentrating.
Multitasking may be creating a generation of interruption-addicted, attention-deficit junkies. Although my serial brain may be vindicated, my mind is not eased. My ability to focus may be becoming a quaint relic. What good is it, after all, if I’m concentrating while all around me are spinning in a flurry of multimedia streams? I may be able to write The Great American Novel, but no one will be left with an attention span capable of reading it.