Modern efficiency vs. one task at a time

The ability to do several things at once has become one of the great measures of self-worth for 21st-century Americans. It's called multitasking, and it takes many forms.

As one example, why go out to lunch when you can eat at your desk, talk (or at least half-listen) to a client on the phone, scroll through your e-mail, and scan a memo simultaneously?

And why simply work out on a treadmill when you could be watching television and talking on a portable phone at the same time? What a feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment - three activities for the time commitment of one! Ah, such efficiency.

No wonder those who turn "To do" lists into a time-management art form are inclined to boast: "Look, Ma, how many things I can accomplish at once. If I'm this busy, I must be important."

Yet last week the New York Assembly struck a blow against multitasking, at least behind the wheel, when it approved a bill banning drivers in the state from using hand-held cellular phones.

Too dangerous, the assembly said, citing research showing that drivers are four times more likely to have a collision when they are talking on a cellphone.

No one can argue against using time effectively. But accompanying the supposed gains are losses. Consider the woman out for an early-morning walk in a suburban neighborhood. She strides briskly, head down, cellphone clamped to her ear, chattering away, oblivious of the birds and flowers and glorious sunshine. Did the walk have any value?

More than a decade ago, long before multitasking became a word in everyday use, a retired professor of theology in Indiana with whom I corresponded made a case for what might be called uni-tasking - the old-fashioned practice of doing one thing at a time. Offering the simplest example, he said, "When you wash the dishes, wash the dishes." Good advice, I've found, whatever the task.

In her forthcoming book, "Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert," naturalist Terry Tempest Williams makes a similarly persuasive case for simplifying activities in an essay titled "Ode to Slowness."

"To see how much I can get done in a day does not impress me anymore," Ms. Williams writes. Noting that "we worship speed and desire," she describes what constitutes a typical routine for many people: "Talk fast. Work fast. Drive fast. Walk fast. Run. Who ever told us to wear jogging shoes to work? Don't saunter. Don't look. Speed walk. Speed dial. Federal Express will fly our thoughts around the world."

Lamenting that people often "do not trust slowness, silence, or stillness," she emphasizes the value of becoming "a caretaker of silence, a connoisseur of stillness."

That's easy for her to say, perhaps, as a writer responding to the rhythms of nature rather than to the daily demands of a 9-to-5 job and a boss. Still, some researchers are finding that multitasking, by dividing one's concentration, actually diminishes productivity. Rather than being a friend, it becomes a foe, a thief robbing frenzied people of time to focus and reflect.

Perhaps the New York Assembly's brave vote will spur lawmakers around the country to follow suit. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 39 other states are considering similar measures on cellphones.

Perhaps, too, the ban on phoning-on-the-road will even spark a move away from other forms of dual activity. Who can tell? It could mark the first step in a welcome reconsideration of what really constitutes productivity and accomplishment.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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