Not your mother's multitasking

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By Suzanne Darland


The driver in front of you has a cell phone next to his ear. And if you really want to be outraged, he is eating a burger, too.

Your dining companion of a certain age demographic is texting or tweeting while you wait for your food, perhaps sending a cell phone pic to one friend or updating another friend about where she is.

Teens are instant messaging their friends or playing an online multi-player game while they do their homework.

It’s called multi-tasking, and young people especially seem to be masters of the craft. They update their status and answer quick quizzes on Facebook in between doing math problems. They watch videos on YouTube and Hulu while working on an essay for their English class.

Some teachers are wary of students bringing their laptops to class to take notes, worried that their students will be surfing the Net and IMing their friends, which they probably are.

One of the best reasons to bring a laptop to class was demonstrated by a student I sat next to in an Internet law class I recently took at the University of Kentucky. The prof mentioned a Supreme Court case, and my classmate Googled its particulars. The prof indicated that state employee salaries were public record, and my tablemate looked up the professor’s salary.

I saw recently where 78 percent of American adults pair television watching with being online. They’re viewing plot summaries of the shows they’re watching or messaging their friends about what just happened in a favorite sitcom.

That must mean that everyone under 50 has their computers and television sets on at the same time, because that statistic sure doesn’t apply to the adults I know.

I’m a multi-tasker, all right, but not in a technological sort of way. I read the newspaper, spread out over the sink, while I floss and brush my teeth. I make phone calls while I fold clothes. I listen to a book on cassette (I don’t have a small CD player so have to go with old technology) while I cook or wash dishes.

Brushing my teeth, folding clothes and washing dishes are mindless activities I don’t really have to pay attention to, so I can focus my brain on more interesting pursuits. That’s the kind of multi-tasking I’m comfortable with, not what researchers call “sequential processing,” moving quickly from one task to another. Focusing on a friend’s emergency. Then the newest episode of “American Idol.” Back to the friend. Then algebra. A Facebook update. Taking a cute pic of the dog. Sending it to friends. “American Idol.” Back to algebra.

Something is going to suffer. The brain can’t simultaneously juggle those activities and must move quickly from one to the next, refocusing each time.

My mom taught me kinder, gentler multi-tasking. Whenever she sat down to watch TV, she hemmed a skirt or knit a scarf at the same time. She still keeps a basket next to her TV chair with projects in it. In fact, she plans her days getting ready what she calls “handwork” to do at night.

When she was a passenger in a car she had similar projects to work on as the scenery cruised by. Still does.

So it’s no surprise that I use my time as a passenger to grade papers if there’s enough daylight. I’ve been known to wrap gifts in my lap on the way to weddings. And once in the ‘70s, on our way home to Florida from Kentucky, I macraméd a 3-by-6 owl wall hanging out of brown cord as a Christmas gift.

When the boys were small we multi-tasked in the car as well. My husband and I tucked in plenty of magnetic game boards and toys and crayons and paper to try and keep them busy. We played the standard car games: finding license plates from different states and the letters of the alphabet — in order — on billboards and road signs. We spent many hours giggling about the serial stories we made up, where each one would add a passage to the previous narrative, trying to set up the most outrageous scenarios we could to stump the next story teller.

Because life was busy, we used the time to create connections with our children and sometimes with our children’s friends who were with them on shuttles to and from school, ball games and band practice.

One of my favorite bits of advice about parenting was about using car trips to hold difficult discussions about sex or drinking. Your teen couldn’t leave a car going 35 mph, so you had a captive audience.

I guess what Mom taught was to “redeem the time,” as the Bible says, to use it wisely. To use multi-tasking as a way to get the important things done. So I try.

Except today while I was at work I just had to sneak a peek at the cutest video my son and and his wife posted online of their Westie dog Ruby.

I think I’ll send it to my sister.