Why You Dislike Multi-Tasking

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I often wish that I could live in what I like to call “Wardrobe Time.”

In C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” four schoolchildren disappear through a wardrobe into the magical land of Narnia…for decades. They grow into adults there, ascend to Narnian thrones, and reign for many years. But when they return to the real world, they find that no time has elapsed at all. They’re still kids.

I wish I could make time stand still too, not for decades but for a few hours here and there. I’d love to stop the clock on work deadlines while I enjoy time with my family. And I want to throw myself into work without missing a single moment of the precious, you’ll-never-get-these-years-back stage of life my kids are in right now.

This is a simple enough wish, for more hours in the day. But I think I’m also longing for something more — a world without multi-tasking or juggling. I want to plunge wholeheartedly into what I’m doing, without considering other things I could or should be attending to.

In this age of “continuous partial attention” (my friend Linda Stone’s brilliant expression for the fragmentary nature of modern life), most people have wishes like this.

But I would guess that introverts have them even more. We’re not as good at extroverts at multi-tasking, according to research; our brains juggle competing bits of incoming information less efficiently. On the other hand, introverts tend to be better than extroverts at focusing on single tasks. It’s thought that this is a major reason why we enjoy focusing and going deep — and why we don’t like social chit-chat.

When you have a conversation, there’s lots of information to decode all at once: words, body language, facial expressions. A simple talk with your best friend requires an astonishing array of tasks: interpreting what your friend is saying; taking turns talking and listening; responding to what your friend just said; assessing whether you’re being understood; determining whether you’ve been favorably received, and if not, how to improve the situation. Think of what it takes to juggle all this at once! And that’s just a one-on-one conversation. Now imagine the multi-tasking required in a group setting like a dinner party.

I find that even a simple social event like hosting a playdate can be stressful, because I can’t easily divide my attention between mutiple people (the children, their parents) and multiple roles (parenting my own kids, making other kids feel comfortable, socializing with their moms, setting out the snacks.) It’s so much more natural for me to interact separately with each person:  a trip to the library with my kids, a tete-a-tete with a friend.

But I also find that it’s helpful to understand why I feel this way. The very act of naming the problem frees me from the stress of wishing that multi-tasking came easier. I do as good a job as I can, and let that be that.

It also helps me appreciate what does come easily to me. I wouldn’t be so good at focusing — on my children, on my work — if I weren’t so bad at multi-tasking.

And you know what? I’m happy with that trade.

Your thoughts? Does this ring true for you?

 


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24 Comments »

24 Comments

  1. Carol on 23.03.2011 at 15:40 (Reply)

    Thank you! This is so true for me! Now I don’t feel so alone.

  2. Susan Cain on 23.03.2011 at 15:58 (Reply)

    So not alone. Heaps of people feel this way. But no one talks about it!

  3. Melissa on 23.03.2011 at 16:55 (Reply)

    Yes! True for me.

  4. Lisa Jenn Bigelow on 23.03.2011 at 18:22 (Reply)

    The playdate example really clicked with me. I like to have parties — or rather, I like the *idea* of having parties. I like to spend time with friends, show off my place, make food I wouldn’t usually make, etc. But once everyone shows up, it’s a quick spiral down. There are too many details and people to attend to! I’m able to keep my stress hidden and stay perky for a couple of hours, but then I find myself tuning out and turning inward — at my own party. Sigh.

  5. Karen on 23.03.2011 at 18:36 (Reply)

    Certainly true for me too!

  6. Valerie on 24.03.2011 at 05:46 (Reply)

    I am perfectly happy to just be by myself reading for the evening. Love being at home.

  7. asplenia on 24.03.2011 at 07:39 (Reply)

    Very true for me too. I tend to tune everything else out and focus on only one thing at a time, which makes me a terrible multi-tasker but very absorbed in whatever I’m working on at the moment. It’s good to know not everyone craves Continuous Partial Attention (brilliant term!).

  8. Kathleen on 24.03.2011 at 07:48 (Reply)

    I feel like that as well. I love to plan the party, prepare the food, say hello and then I’d like to leave my own party. Thanks for bringing this forward. I always thought I was weird.

  9. Paula on 24.03.2011 at 09:06 (Reply)

    I’m glad there’s a reason I’m not good at multi-tasking, but lately I’ve been reading lots of how to succeed at your business literature and I have the guilty feeling I should be reading all the right blogs and networking and still cleaning house and spending time with my family. What a relief to realize that success for me comes from doing one thing at a time well. I just have to be satisfied with doing fewer things. AHHHH.

  10. Debra on 24.03.2011 at 09:12 (Reply)

    So true for me. I’m heartened to read about it here and put together more understanding about why it’s a struggle to enjoy gatherings with people I love, know well, and want to see - multitasking is not as rewarding as going deeper - may explain a lot of things! Thank you!

  11. Esha on 24.03.2011 at 09:32 (Reply)

    Wow. In my job, I was, and had to be, a mega-multitasker, and it has carried over into my retired life and is making me so uncomfortable. Reading your post was a real eye-opener. I am going to start focusing on focusing to help me stop making myself crazy by doing 10 things at once. Thank you! A great insight. Can’t wait for your book. I think of you as “a voice for the rest of us”.

  12. Christy on 24.03.2011 at 14:26 (Reply)

    Interesting. This is one of the few things about introversion I find isn’t true for me. I am an inveterate multitasker, and I love my ability to do it. Which is not to say that I don’t like to sit down and concentrate on one thing, especially in conversations and interactions with people. But I am indeed both an extreme introvert and an excellent multitasker.

  13. Jen on 25.03.2011 at 08:08 (Reply)

    Uh huh! I’m a late developing introvert, or maybe just late in discovering that’s what I am. This is spot on. I find parties - even dinner parties - hard, because I can’t split my attention between everyone and end up disappointed with myself.

    And I LOVE to focus on something - most things can be interesting if you can really focus on them.

    Glad I found your blog via Real Delia.
    Looking forward to reading more!

  14. Jen on 25.03.2011 at 08:09 (Reply)

    PS I can multi-task too - I have to in my profession. But I can tell it draws on reserves of energy and emotion. I have to ‘switch on’ that ability - perhaps it’s a sign it doesn’t come naturally but can be learned.

  15. Jen Robinson on 25.03.2011 at 11:43 (Reply)

    The playdate example really hit home for me, too (especially since I’m hosting my first one today). One thing I’ve learned recently is that when I’m out to dinner with a group at a rectangular table, it’s much better to sit at one end of the table, instead of in the middle. When I’m in the middle I have SUCH a hard time splitting my focus between conversations at both ends.

  16. Poppy on 25.03.2011 at 12:19 (Reply)

    Some days, simply driving with the radio on - hearing the music, paying attention to drivers ahead, behind, and to the sides, keeping an eye on the car’s speed, watching lights to see when I need to stop - is too much multi-tasking.

    My husband and best friend think I’m weird. Neither of them can do ANYTHING without music.

  17. Paul Leclerc on 26.03.2011 at 13:45 (Reply)

    I’m not sure if it’s my introversion or ADD that makes it harder for me to multitask. Introverts tend to be internally focused i.e. working things out by talking to themselves vs extroverts talking out loud to someone else. If I’m focused on some task and deep in thought, someone or something interrupting me will really throw me off. It may take me a long time to get my focus back. I try hard to stay focused on one thing so I can get it done and if I’m multitasking I don’t get any of them done very well. Anyone can multitask but the results may not be very pretty.

  18. Chauntrell Venable on 06.04.2011 at 12:16 (Reply)

    I definitely identify with this post. At my last job I had to multitask 5 to 10 task. It was very frustrating and demoralizing. At the end of the day several task were half done and some task I never got around to. Now that I understand multitasking is not a strong competencies of mine because I am an introvert, I skip over job leads that say must be able to work in a fast pace environment while multitasking and have the ability to reprioritize task as needed.

  19. ASuburbanLife on 13.04.2011 at 00:04 (Reply)

    I love this post and I love your blog. Now to get the book!

  20. Eileen Watkins on 29.04.2011 at 11:26 (Reply)

    Not only is it exhausting when I have to multi-task at work, but it’s probably one of the reasons I’m a lifelong single. Going out to events to “meet people” and having to “work the room” feels very unnatural to me. I often end up spending most of my time talking to someone to whom I’m not really attracted because it feels rude to break off the conversation and just move on. Also, most of my jobs have been in office environments where I’m surrounded by other people (and many distractions) and dealing with the public all day. When I leave work, I’m drained! The last thing I want to do is go to a bar and make small talk with more strangers. But gee, if I could find someone, I’d be a helluva a girlfriend because I know how to listen to and relate to one person very well. (Sigh!)

    1. Susan Cain on 29.04.2011 at 11:53 (Reply)

      Thx much for your post, Eileen. Maybe you can find other ways to meet people — through shared interests, etc.? Seems a shame, if you like to relate one-on-one, not to enjoy that in your personal life!

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  22. Jess on 27.10.2013 at 06:58 (Reply)

    I’m terrible at multi-tasking, it really stresses me out. But, I also have a hard time focusing and really ‘going deep’ on any given task!

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