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What your brain looks like multi-tasking, I bet.
What your brain looks like multi-tasking, I bet.


“I’m just multi-tasking” is a phrase that annoys me like no other.  I don’t think I’ve ever heard a man use the word about himself, but then ‘multi-tasking’, according to women’s magazines is what women can do better than men, so it’s usually used as a weapon of barely masked sexism. It offends me.  For one thing, if you want to believe that you (as a woman) are better at multi-tasking than men, then you have to subscribe to the kind of gender-stereotyping that would be considered out of order, if it were used the other way round. I can multitask, thank you very much. I can cook. I’m good at all kinds of things which are conventionally considered ‘feminine’ in our society (but not others) including music, and I can do many of them all at once.

Although I hate the term, I have been multi-tasking recently. I’ve just spent the best part of two days fighting HTML, plug-ins, hyperlinks, CSS while keeping mind and body on a host of other things too. I was bemused to wake up feeling slightly resentful and empty afterwards, until I realised that however engrossing  this diversion from my usual diet of philosophy, psychology, aesthetics & music education for my MA might be,  it is all rather mindless, compared with the job of thinking. I could quite easily watch Brick Lane while I was doing precarious things with .htaccess files and php on a server, send emails, Google stuff and edit web-pages.  But I couldn’t watch telly and read a book, or consider a problem in aesthetics, or have a focused conversation with someone.  My resentment and emptiness was a direct result of not having time and space to think properly about stuff in the way I’d like. The only reason I could multi-task is because the tasks themselves were low-level and impersonal, hence the disatisfaction.

Don’t mind me. At all.

“I’m just multi-tasking” is 21st-century womanspeak for “I’m not listening to you”, or “Carry on talking while I do something that I consider more important”, the unspoken insult, traditionally, of men to women. Added to that, it means ‘And I’m better than you, because women can do this stuff, and you can’t.” So look at in another way, and “I’m just multi-tasking” means “I’m just an unreconstructed selfish man in a dress.  I have decided to adopt traditional male attitudes of discounting, ignoring and supercilious behaviour, and justify them with pop-psychology which I read in those women’s magazines that rationalize my current beliefs”. If you were in a room with your (male) boss and they started shuffling papers, tidying up and answering emails, you’d think “OK, this is a signal for me to go”.  “I’m just multi-tasking” means “Please stay so I can do you the dishonor of not really listening”. And, get this, half the time when people I know say they’re multitasking, I have to keep repeating myself, or give up trying to explain anything complex, or which requires sensitive attention to detail.

Sexist? Moi?

Now, before you accuse me of sexism, the point is that of all the people I know who are excellent listeners, who take time not just to listen to what you have to say but the way you say it, and who observe the non-verbal signals, and weigh this all up before continuing the conversation in a relaxed and meaningful way, the majority are women.  Most of the people I know who think that other people deserve time, consideration, focus and attention, are women. Most of my friends  who know how to have a conversation which is co-operative and explorative, rather than the parallel re-telling of anecdotes, are women. I’m just saying that if you really want to continue gender stereotyping, good listening is a classier female trait than ‘multi-tasking’.  Polite people, men and women, say ‘I’m afraid I’ve got rather a lot to do, but if you don’t mind me doing this while we talk, we could try and talk about it now’.

Glorious mono

But my point isn’t really about gender or stereotypes, it’s about the forgotten quality of the offline, analogue, monotasking world. Since returning to study after all these years, I’ve re-discovered the joy of reading & thinking. Stimulate your brain in the right way, and you simply can’t multitask, and why would you want to? When I read about ‘today’s children’ watching telly, Facebooking, downloading music, texting their friends, and Googling all at the same time, I don’t think this is particularly extraordinary.  I do this all the time. It’s not just for kids. But all of those things are low-level tasks, that’s why you can do them all together.  But you can’t apply the concept of ‘multi-tasking’ to any old set of tasks, just as you can’t stuff your washing machine with 3 weeks worth of washing, just because it’s a washing machine.

Multi-tasking kills

What pressed the final button in my brain and made me write this rant, is that for the bazillionth time since I’ve been riding a bike in London, I’ve nearly killed some poor Wandsworth baby, because its mother decided to use the pushchair as a kind of mine detector, thrusting it ahead of her with one hand into the road to test for passing traffic, while using the other hand to hold a mobile to her ear. Because she’s listening to the conversation or talking, she doesn’t hear anything less than a bus or juggernaut coming her way, and since most people are right-handed, she’s holding the phone to her right ear and facing away from the oncoming traffic (me).  This isn’t multi-tasking, it’s madness.

2 thought on “Multi-tasking? No thanks.”
  1. This is exactly why making progress on my dissertation is so darned hard! I simply cannot email, watch TV, play online Chess, paint my nails and think about an extended research project all at once. AND, having spent too many years doing all the above (minus the research) for the first couple of hours I feel all jittery when just doing one thing. Which is why, I guess, I’m commenting on your blog rather than writing up abstracts and copying down useful quotations from “Preservation Politics”. 🙂

  2. Well said, I couldn’t agree with this post more. What is interesting is there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that Females are better at multitasking. When a survey is conducted asking both genders the question ‘which sex do you think is better at multitasking’ then women come out top but if an actual study is conducted then both genders are equal.

    What I find quite often in day to day life very much supports your story about the women with the minesweeping pushchairs. Multitasking is about being aware of multiple things but I constantly come across two women chatting in the entrance of a door way or an escalator or somewhere just as inconvenient for people to get past! It’s almost as if their in a little bubble and nothing else exists when all they need to do is say hello and then take 2 steps to the side and talk as much as they like.

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Jonathan Still, ballet pianist