The do's and don'ts of multitasking

In the lull after a big family dinner, my Aunt Louise would sometimes take a beauty break, shaping her cuticles and plucking her eyebrows at the dining-room table, where the light was good. She never missed a beat of the conversation.

I used to question her table manners, but not anymore. Now I realize that Louise was years ahead of the rest of us. She was simply multitasking.

Multitasking - which describes how a microprocessor keeps lots of computer programs running at the same time - has become the popular way to operate at work and at home. If you can't do four or five things at once, you aren't making smart use of your time. An experienced multitasker can put one person on hold while answering the other phone line, while reading his e-mail, while working on his spreadsheet, while eating a taco....

Mothers have been multitasking for years, although most use the more colloquial phrase: "tearing my hair out." I watched one new mother poke mush into her baby while kicking a casserole into the oven, while braiding another kid's hair, while hissing at the cat, while watching "The Price is Right."

Multitasking takes practice, and some people are better at it than others. Anyone who has trouble, say, eating popcorn and watching a movie at the same time, is going to have trouble multitasking. On the other hand, I've seen one guy driving and shaving down Main Street. When he stopped for a red light, he sheared that sensitive area around his Adam's apple.

I bet that guy had a laptop plugged into his cigarette lighter, too.

It's only a matter of time before some efficiency guru publishes a guide on what tasks to combine and what tasks to do separately. I've already thought of some multitasks that beginners should definitely avoid at work:

*Facial isometrics while reading boss's memo

*Balancing checkbook while meeting new clients

*Flossing while talking on speakerphone

*Playing computer solitaire while asking for a raise

*Checking voicemail messages while at speaker's podium

At home, beginning multitaskers should avoid:

*Baiting mousetraps while visiting with dinner guests

*Trimming kid's bangs while walking on treadmill

*Clipping toenails while mowing

*Reading newspaper while showering

These social trends go in cycles, thank goodness, and I can't wait for a focused mind to come back in style. I tried to make pancakes while writing this column. I remembered to flip the words....

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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