I was recently talking with my niece, a college sophomore, and she said, “Ever since I started doing a lot of tasks at once, I don’t think I do them as well.”
I responded, “Yeah, sometimes I think, I can do a lot of things at once, but do I want to?”
I say this generally as someone who is not good at multitasking. I tend to focus all of my energy on what is in front of me; I don’t like dissipating this force by spreading it along different fronts. I remember even as a kid not being able to do my homework and listen to music at the same time. I even eat this way, savoring each dish on my plate independently, not wanting the taste of one to mix with the other. I want each part of the meal to be its own little feature film.
This works fine in eating, because no one is affected by how I go about consuming my dinner. But in more collaborative situations, it can be a liability to mono-task. Sometimes duty demands that I juggle multiple duties, and shrugging my shoulders and saying that I prefer just one ball at a time won’t do. As Annie has correctly pointed out, part of this inherent preference on my part derives from the privilege of being male. I don’t like to do many things at once partially because I often don’t have to. Yet witness Annie in the kitchen cooking up pasta putannesca, fending off Rio snack requests, and simultaneously talking with her sister about our holiday plans. If she said “one at a time” half our household would slowly slide into the river.
This changed a bit with Rio’s birth. With his incessant needs, I had to learn to complete an array of tasks while also caring for him: navigating traffic while singing to his crying self in the car seat; cooking while I rocked him in his chair; talking to my boss as I bounced, baby in arms, on the yoga ball we’d inflated after realizing it was the only way to fight Rio’s colic. I composed a series of odes to Rio that I wrote while standing at our living-room window with him in a baby sling.
Funny how doing just two tasks at once earns me fatherhood points: just a trip to the store with a child in the cart earns smiles from the women we pass, young and old; “it’s just so good to see you out there being a father,” one of them told me, as though doing what women have done for millennia should earn me some special prize.
But still. There is a necessary, positive aspect to multitasking, but then there is the technology-induced mania that has everyone toggling between tasks as though life were a multimedia video game. For many months I opted to stay off the computer at home, certain that I’d gotten my fill of screen time at work. I found that I was more present with Rio, and with Annie, and that I was more focused on whatever I was doing without the temptation of checking e-mail or googling some concept at the press of a button. I slid out of that experiment and welcomed again the ability to “connect,” but at times I miss the freedom I felt from closing down the multiple-attention-span option.
Sadly, but naturally I guess, I see this split-screen mentality arising strongly in Rio already, even though we limit his television viewing and he’s hardly handy at clicking a mouse yet. Just last night, he and I were putting together a Lego spaceship he got for Christmas (27-page manual; can you say “patience”?), and I noticed that he was rushing through Step 210, expecting me to pick up the slack, as he started pointing to the parts he needed for step 211. “Be thorough with each thing you do,” I told him, and I heard the echo myself.
I remember once when I was hiking in Zimbabwe, and my friend Vince and I came across an African man walking along the trail. We learned that his name was James Chimuku, and that he was returning home after going to collect milk for his family. “How long does that take you?” we inquired. “One hour each way,” James told us. “Two hours just to get milk?” we asked. “Yes, but when I am alone and I have that time with myself I think about everything I need to think about. And when I do it with my uncle we tell each other about our lives. I welcome the time the task gives me.”
And so I fight for the old-fashioned way, trying to dig my haunches into each moment while also remembering to hold up my share of the balls in the grand juggling act.