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Multitasking: the path to mediocrity

Elise Patkotak

What is wrong with us as a society that we are no longer content to focus on one chore at a time in order to get that chore accomplished completely and well? According to recent reports, scientists have studied multitaskers and found that they perform none of their multiple tasks very well at all. To which I can only say, "DUH!"

I once watched a man driving a truck turn right onto the Old Seward from Dowling Road. He had a phone to his ear. He had a notepad on a clipboard leaning on the steering wheel. He had a pen in his hand and was writing notes. He steered with his elbows, glancing up periodically to make sure he was still on the road. Because he was so encumbered, instead of turning into the nearest lane, he turned so widely that he ended up going over the divider in the middle of the road. I could literally see fear on the faces of all the drivers near him.

Yep, multitasking. It's one step this side of idiocy. Or maybe it's one step that side of idiocy. Sometimes it's hard to tell.

What's happened to us that we seem incapable of focusing on any one task at any given time? Why do we need a million distractions, a million stimuli, hurling themselves at our brains at once? What is it we are trying to drown out? Or have our lives become so busy with things that we are no longer capable of making the discriminating decisions needed to simplify chores into those tasks which truly matter and those which can be discarded until spare time arises?

I used to think that people who answered cell phones while visiting with me were simply rude. I thought I must be so boring that they wanted to see if something better awaited them on the phone. I could somewhat forgive moms who needed to be available to their children, though even that got old after a while. How will children ever grow up enough to make their own decisions when they are 17 and still calling mommy every five minutes for help in such life-changing decisions as to whether they should have a ham sandwich or PB 'n J for a snack?

Then texting came along and I found people putting their phones on the table so they could keep a constant eye on them in case someone texted them while we were working or eating. It seems to me that you really don't need to get up, shower or use deodorant if you are simply going to sit next to your phone all day waiting for a text message that can be responded to with a Twitter that can then be elaborated upon through Facebook.

Has it occurred to anyone that not only are we not doing anything well because we can no longer focus on anything for longer than 30 seconds, but we also now share details of our lives that once were the private preserve of the marriage bed or the family home? Are we not the least bit embarrassed by the plethora of ... well, let's just say, stuff ... that is shared across networks visible to everyone including possibly aliens from an actually intelligent planet? Maybe we are so distracted by multitasking that we forget how many people will read what we're writing. Whatever the cause, we are now a people who detail our private lives as effortlessly and endlessly as we tweet while eating or text while driving.

When I think of some of the more focused tasks in our society, from air traffic control to neurosurgery, I wonder if the next generation will have the ability to do those tasks to the exclusion of all others. Or will the neurosurgeon have his cell phone hooked into a PA system in the operating room and be trading stocks while removing that pesky brain tumor?

I was not at all surprised that scientific testing showed that we are not capable of performing five tasks at once and getting any of them very right. What I wonder is if the next generation will have any idea of what a job well done even means if all they've ever seen is the mediocrity that comes with multitasking.

Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow.


ELISE PATKOTAK
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