Saturday, January 12, 2013

Is Multitasking Real?

Sherlock Holmes, at a key moment in the TV version of "The Three Gables" with the incomparable Jeremy Brett, pauses in listening to an old lady's account of her grandson's murder and says, surprisingly, "This cake is delicious."  He has consciously shifted focus from the usual rapt attention he pays to every detail of the case to another, much more trivial present-time moment: what he is having for tea.

I thought of this scene in part because Maria Konnikova in her book Mastermind presents Holmes as the model of mindfulness, a term I question elsewhere (Jan. 2 post). She also asserts that multitasking is a myth since, as in the example above, we actually to shift our attention from one thing to another; we are not really able to attend to two things at once.

This is not to say we can't walk and chew gum at the same time or drive and listen to music, since the latter rarely requires concentration. Listening to music is not a task. Texting or using the cell phone is a task requiring attention and has no place when a person is driving.

A friend who often telephones us on her way home from work uses a headset, not a cell phone, but it is obvious that she is not giving good attention (especially listening) to the person (me) at the other end or to the road.  I would like to say, "do one thing or the other, and please wait until you get home to call us (unless it's an emergency)."

A student of mine was busy putting away groceries in the family kitchen--I could hear annoying noises in the background as we spoke--and I suggested he call me back or do the unloading later.  Talking to me (I suggested) was important. This is not a statement of vanity but of fact: he has things to learn from me and needs to pay attention and remember them. If he tries to divide his attention from what we are saying to the kitchen chore, he will be at some level frustrated, unfulfilled.

He replied, "Oh, I'm in to multitasking." It was then that I remembered Sherlock's remark about the cake, the author's comment about multitasking, and my dislike for the whole idea of pretending to do two things well at the same time.  Don't we have enough distractions in everyday life in our effort to communicate? Why create more?

Of course, one can be content to do two things haphazardly, mindlessly, perhaps hurriedly, but this is spiritually dangerous. What do I mean?

I mean we need to slow down and be fully present to one another in every conversation, in every human encounter. To be present means to be patient enough to listen and to stay with the other person before turning our mind over to something else.

A phone conversation is not a task on the level of washing dishes or even driving a car--things we do to get them over with: it is a personal exchange requiring that we be fully attentive to what is happening in the reality of the present moment.

That is mindfulness and it is real; multitasking is not.

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