The myth of multitasking

January 3rd, 2011

This is the first in a series of posts that I am reprising in the spirit of Asilomar, the breathtaking patch of Northern California coastline which inspired them in the first place. It is my attempt to motivate you to join me there on the Monterey Peninsula on Saturday, Feb. 12 for the Plunge at Asilomar, my next one-day retreat. Read more and then register to attend. In the bustle and fury that accompanies the first working day of the new year, I suggest you allow yourself to do just one thing at a time. You will be amazed at what you get done in no time at all.

I would have written this post earlier but I had a million things to do, and I did them one at a time.

I am a monotasker. By that I mean I do things one at a time. I used to think I was a multitasker. Now I’m not so sure that anyone is a multitasker, although many people think they are quite good at it, and even want to give people advice on how to become better at it themselves.

Learning how to be a better multitasker seems to me like learning to speak another language so you can have multiple personalities. An interesting process but you still end up insane.

During the time in my life when I considered myself a world-class multitasker, I was the head of a company. I worked all the time, doing a lot of different projects, for a lot of different clients, with a busy staff of people. It felt like I was doing everything, all the time, all at once, but I ended most days feeling like nothing got done! Sort of like this:

I suppose because we have more than one hand, we believe that we can do more than one thing at a time. But the brain doesn’t work like that. We have only one brain, and it pays attention to only one thing at a time. You might argue that you fold laundry while watching TV, two things at once. But if you could slow your mind down enough to follow the focus of your attention, you’d see that for one split-second, you were folding the towel, then for the next split-second, you heard a snippet of dialogue. Everyone’s mind is quick and facile, but only focuses on one thing at a time. You took longer to fold the towels and you missed the punch line. The fact is, we are so distracted so much of the time, so overstimulated and preoccupied, that we aren’t paying attention to much of anything at all.

Being a monotasker doesn’t mean you do things slowly. It means you do things singly. And that’s what gets them done. As a mother, you are a megamonotasker. You do a million things a day, one at a time. Your job is to focus your attention on what is in front of you, and let your attention do the job. Attention can do anything, because attention is love.

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  1. All I can say to this post is

    AMEN!!! (bold, 44 pt. font)

    What you are saying has been proven in scientific study, but the way.

    Thank you for saying what needs to be said!

    Comment by Connie — August 27, 2008 @ 5:04 pm

  2. Laughing at myself . . . had to force myself not to continue reading while watching / listening to the video!

    Comment by Mama Zen — August 27, 2008 @ 5:24 pm

  3. Megamonotasker. That’s brilliant! Do I have permission to use that word?

    Comment by Kristin H. — August 27, 2008 @ 5:26 pm

  4. Halllelujah! Since I became a mom 2 years ago, I’ve slowly realized that I cannot really multitask well. The closest I come is trying to make dinner and keep the boy occupied. But most days I just try to remember that I don’t do it well, and to just do one thing at a time. I couldn’t believe you mentioned laundry; the other day I just realized I folded it faster in the silence of my bedroom, right after my son falls asleep for naptime. Frankly, I like the quiet at this point, and the focus of mind from doing one thing at a time.

    Thank you for once again giving voice to what was, for me, just a half articulated feeling.
    Anonymous in MPLS.

    Comment by Anonymous — August 27, 2008 @ 6:46 pm

  5. monotasker, love it – love it.

    Comment by Feener — August 27, 2008 @ 6:48 pm

  6. Yes, yes, yes. Engaging in a task with intention is so much more fulfilling than doing fifty things at once. (says the self proclaimed and sometimes insane “queen of multitasking”)
    PS- your comments on my blog inspire me beyond words….

    Comment by Robyn — August 27, 2008 @ 6:48 pm

  7. I agree, BUT, when I am playing the flute I am moving my fingers, reading the music, breathing in, blowing out, listening to myself and everyone else around me, and sometimes watching a conductor, plus more…That’s a lot – at what feels like the same time! However, musicians playing music are apparently the only people using both sides of the brain at the same time. i am definitely slower at folding laundry when in front of the tv. I should try playing the flute while watching tv:)

    Comment by Mika — August 27, 2008 @ 10:51 pm

  8. Oh, yes. I feel like I have just been given permission to let go of the expectation placed on me – usually BY ME – to get a hundred things done at once. Let’s hope this transforms into a movement.

    Comment by nikole — August 27, 2008 @ 11:14 pm

  9. I monotask what I love. The rest just gets done…eventually.

    Comment by mapelba — August 27, 2008 @ 11:28 pm

  10. Mika, you’re right. All that and a myriad indescribable pieces come together in the one thing called “playing the flute.” Now, if you played the flute while folding the laundry, that would be multitasking.
    What makes you a virtuoso at flute is that when you play the flute you put your whole mind and body into it.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — August 27, 2008 @ 11:38 pm

  11. Of course! Playing is a single task. Why didn’t I see that myself! I should definitely try playing while folding, I haven’t thought of that before. At least I would be playing a bit! Too bad folding laundry is not a career…

    Comment by Mika — August 28, 2008 @ 1:15 am

  12. many things on my mind, but now I’m just writing a comment. 😉

    Comment by RocketMom Cheryl — August 28, 2008 @ 2:57 am

  13. amen. i am sometimes overwhelmed by over-multi-tasking. it. must. stop. thanks for the wakeup and reminder.

    Comment by Phyllis Sommer — August 28, 2008 @ 3:41 am

  14. Yes! Yes! Yes! So glad you wrote this.

    Comment by Pam — August 28, 2008 @ 9:17 am

  15. Wonderful insight! Great post! Thank you for this reminder and affirmation.

    Peace and joy,


    Comment by Lisa — August 28, 2008 @ 10:04 am

  16. If I gave up multi-tasking, I wonder if I would find I didn’t have enough time to do everything I’m doing, or if everything I’m doing isn’t necessary to do in the first place.

    Comment by She She — August 28, 2008 @ 5:42 pm

  17. It’s true! And kids do deserve attention, undivided (don’t we all).

    Comment by denise — August 29, 2008 @ 4:55 pm

  18. She She, I happen to believe that there is always enough time to do what needs to be done, and when we give it our complete attention, it takes less time than we think.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — August 29, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

  19. This is just the message I needed today and just what my children need from me. Thank you!
    Stacey, Los Angeles

    Comment by Anonymous — September 11, 2008 @ 5:01 am

  20. You may want to check out the book: “The Myth of Multitasking” by Dave Crenshaw. I heard him talking about this on the radio the other day.

    Comment by MarcyT — October 6, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

  21. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jack Daw, kees klomp. kees klomp said: monotasking is the new multitasking. via@ZenDirtZenDust The myth of multitasking by @kmaezenmiller […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention The myth of multitasking | Karen Maezen Miller's Cheerio Road -- — January 3, 2011 @ 6:53 am

  22. I am a potter. Someone once asked me to make about 30 small tiles. As I sat down to do them, another person came into the studio and asked how I was going to do all of them. I told her that I really just had one to do. And then one more. And so on. And that is how it is, I think. We can really only take one step at a time.

    Comment by debra — January 3, 2011 @ 1:26 pm

  23. I wish monotasker had been coined in 2010. It’s a much better word than refudiate! =)

    Comment by Annie — January 3, 2011 @ 4:10 pm

  24. I spent the day alternately dreading my first day back tomorrow, and reminding myself to focus on the happy moment with my family right now. One step at a time I’m learning this lesson and I’m hoping in the coming year I’ll only get better at it. So so wish I could be at that retreat, alas my pocketbook begs to differ. However I will keep reading.

    Comment by Christine — January 4, 2011 @ 12:38 am

  25. Thank you for this article. I have done a lot of hiring over the years, both for myself and mostly for other organizations. I used to put “must be a good multi-tasker” in the ad! Eventually I learned just what you are saying. I was simply setting people up to fail.
    Life is about being present. Our consciousness evolves through presence. Can’t be so present when we are multi-focused.

    Comment by Carolyn Ringo — January 5, 2011 @ 2:10 am

  26. Love it. Unfortunately the video reminded me of how I used to work when I was on Wall Street and that type of pace was expected. It is so true that I did a lot of things but none of them super well and felt totally drained at the end of each day. The other side effect of this was that even when I wasn’t working it became more and more difficult to be focused on one thing, I was a bit frantic all the time. I could barely sit and enjoy watching TV without doing something else!

    Comment by Charlotte — January 6, 2011 @ 10:04 pm

  27. […] is love,” I read recently from one sage blogging friend. Amen. I have been listening to these words replay in my head. Stopping myself from reading while […]

    Pingback by an amble « Mothers of Invention — January 12, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

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