On Sunday I was rushing to get ready for a lunch at our house. Starving, cranky and in a hurry, I was simultaneously emptying the dishwasher, making an omelet, grinding coffee, listening to the radio news and texting a friend. My bloke was making a cake.
He made a superb cake. Light, moist, delicious. My coffee was bitter, my omelet rubbery and I can't tell you much about what was on the radio. The texts were fine. Priorities are important.
It's the story of many women. We multi-task like mad. I am now so used to doing many things at once I find it hard to do just one. I have it down to a fine art. I can take half the clothes off the line in time it takes to fill the watering can and throw the ball twice to the dog. I can clean the bath while on the loo. I can write this while checking Twitter and helping four children colour in a glow in the dark mural.
Yet, I know there's a cost. The cake/omelet example is a typical result. I often feel like I do a lot of things badly. My bloke sometimes says the same but I believe he manages to focus on fewer things and, consequently, do them better.
Nearly all of us; men, women and children are so busy that we do several things at once. But, it seems to me women tend to do more and most often. And frankly, we're better at it. I know many girls who get frustrated at their partners' inability to walk and chew gum while they are living like an octopus - all flailing, yet useful, arms and feet.
Science backs me up. Researchers at University of Hertfordshire decided to study the accepted wisdom that women have brains that can multi-task better than men. They gave their male and female volunteers a number of simple tasks at once. They found the women significantly outperformed the men - even when one task involved mathematical problems.
Yet, many experimental psychologists believe we chicks are kidding ourselves. They believe multi-tasking is actually not really possible. Some talk of a brain "bottleneck", which ensures we can only perform one thing at a time; switching our attention back and forth between tasks. Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell has gone so far as to describe multi-tasking as a "mythical activity". In his book 'Crazy Busy' he argues our multiple input of technology is giving society a collective dose of ADHD. But he also admits his working wife does the majority of the child rearing. I bet she can multi-task the floor with him.
Studies of the brain show that women have more white matter than men; which means we think with the part of the brain that has more connections between the neurons.
Yet I am prepared to concede that when we multitask we may actually be rapidly switching from one activity to the other. If I'm putting on make up at traffic lights I either have a black smudge under my eye or an awareness of the song on the radio - not both. The other day as I locked up the house while brushing my teeth I knocked over the ironing board.
Perhaps this is why we women who have to constantly multi-task sometimes feel like we can't win. We know there's a cost but we just simply have to pay it.
The good news is that the brain, as we know, is adaptable and plastic. This is why we are adapting to the onslaught of new input. While women are possibly more adaptable, there's no doubt it gets harder as we get older. Some interesting work is being done with adolescents whose brains are more malleable and not fully formed. Last week I met visiting U.S. expert Dr Jay Giedd who has spent 20 years studying the teenage brain. He's using magnetic resonance imaging to discover if teenagers can truly multi-task in a way women can't.
Dr Giedd says the teenage brain has an extraordinary capacity to adapt to the environment. Witness the fact that teenagers are spending, on average, seven and a half hours a day interacting on multiple screens. They are putting their mothers to shame; doing their homework while chatting on Skype, checking in on Facebook or Tumblr and dropping in and out of an online game or chat. All this, while texting, listening to music and god knows what else (I'm not sure I actually want to). These digital natives grew up with technology, so they find multiple inputs and tasks normal and automatic. And their brains are in the sweet spot - infinitely adaptable to a new way of learning, playing, connecting and experiencing life.
By our late 20s our brain begins to prune functions it doesn't use. Dr Giedd will soon know if digital natives will keep their abilities. He'll discover if technology is actually changing our brains; if humans are adapting so they can switch more rapidly and effectively between tasks with less impairment.
Some are worried about the superficial 'mile wide, inch deep' thinking of multi-tasking that will sideline the persistence, patience and focus required for in-depth scholarship. I can understand the concern but I'm not sure I concur. For me, the more I multi-task, the more I crave and then enjoy reading a book (albeit in the bath with a wine - but that's not multi-tasking, that's wallowing in pleasure). Perhaps the teenagers of today will react to the breadth of their tasks and information by craving a depth of research or study. That's an adolescent rebellion many would welcome.
Meanwhile, I'm mindful that in the new world multi-tasking is here to stay and it's best to manage as best as we can. And really, if I'm honest, I like it. It suits my femaleness, personality and star sign. Yet, I'm still aiming to give Buddhist-like focus to one task a week to reap that simplicity, concentration and joy of doing one thing well. I'm open to suggestions of what it should be.
- Daily Life
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