Multitasking vs. an entire Bette Davis movie

Out of the Woods

Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2001

In the office, there always has been an employee evaluation criteria about making good use of your time. Each year you had to try to convince your boss that the rubber band target competitions you set up were a team-building exercise and that the paper clip chains you made were a choking hazard mitigation and an example of personal initiative. Well, you're pressured now to go beyond those sterling efforts and show that you are capable of doing several things at once. You may even be sent to a seminar to learn how and you will come away with a new tool in your toolbox called multi-tasking. Your boss will pay someone to install that new skill in you, someone who figured out that what mothers have been doing for centuries is marketable. Someone who figured it out before you did.

Home managers with anything on the ball (those who don't want to be run over by the ball) can run a dozen tasks at once, coordinating available daylight, optimum water pressure, school bus schedules and barnyard chores. Mothers don't attend seminars to learn to put in a load of laundry, set the bread to rise, move the stock to the next pasture then watch part of a Bette Davis movie. Do mothers ever get to watch a whole movie in one sitting? They get to watch the movie segment only because they need to put a dent in the mending basket while the little ones are down for a nap. It's old knowledge, handed down in the home along with the way to get bubblegum out of hair. But like so many things, when the concept of overlapping chores of a household is applied in other settings, it seems a little crazy.

Some of us are so comfortable at work with several tasks at once, that we can't just do one thing at a time anymore. If you put us in a quiet place without interruption to concentrate on one thing, we fidget, mentally running around in circles for a minute, then fall asleep.

Children pick up this skill when they do homework while watching TV and talking on the phone. The habit spills into recreation. Take a walk in the woods, for example. When we come back, we expect to rattle off the names of all the birds we saw, the names and news of the acquaintances we met and have worked out whatever we had on our minds.

If we didn't do all those things, we would have stopped walking and we'd still be sitting under a tree somewhere. This explains all the fancy recreation gear, headphones and arranging to go with friends. Gives us something to do while we walk.

I wonder if it's time to go to the next workplace time management breakthrough. We know that multitasking fragments our thinking and weakens the integrity of our projects, but how do we market that? Something about the power of one at a time, or linear alignment of work for a pure - WorkStream! That's it! (While I typed that I was also copyrighting it over the Internet, so just sit back down, bucko.)

It's a revolutionary idea, that of focusing all your creative energy inside the dang box and on one task at a time. The sense of actually finishing one thing energizes you for the next one. The second level of the program is called - what am I telling you for? Pay the fee and go to the class. Watch for the logo, a view of the planets lined up in a cubicle. The tool for your toolbox will be a real object - something a lot like, well, blinders. I'll call them focus facilitators.

A possible downside is that the concept will worm its way into the home. Mothers all over the world will be sitting down and watching the Bette Davis movie start to finish. Dinner will be late.

Nita Nettleton can be reached at

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