My Crusade Against Multitasking

First off, it’s clear that I don’t practice what I’m about to preach. I have a ten-year-old son, failing parents who live across the country, an extroverted husband who juggles more than I do. Of course I multitask. Did I mention that I run an online magazine? I have to multitask every day, every hour, sometimes every minute.

"March of Leisure Time" poster, WPA; courtesy Library of Congress

But I’m sick of it. Not of the work I do or my writing or my family or friends or my son’s school or the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, or my country or the universe. Yet I am tired of mentally skipping along the surface, of having my attention flutter about like a butterfly attracted by the brightest flower.

I’ve begun to question the shrugging acceptance of all the busyness in American life. Maybe it’s normal. Maybe Americans have always worried about falling behind or out of the loop—be it the technology loop, the college loop, the fancy car loop, the keeping-up-with-the-Jones’s loop.

But why should that feel normal? And is it good that it does?

My family spent this past spring in Singapore, away from many of our usual distractions. Singapore itself is a busy place, dominated by the work ethic of its majority Chinese population. If we’d been permanent residents, we would have sunk right back into the usual overlapping networks of work and school and social obligations. However, we were only there four months, and in that time, we all found a sweet family haven from overscheduling.

Suddenly I was reading novels again. I had time to stare into space in the early mornings without my thoughts galloping along at a fevered pace. I had time to let the grief over my aunt’s death in January lodge in my body and soul, to let it shake me, to pull forth memories.

I spent much more time with my husband and son. We visited plenty of museums and attractions, but my son and I, in particular, did a lot of hanging out together with no set agenda. We rode the subways all over the island, reading our books, watching everyone else thumb texts or download email on smartphones. My son devoured the entire Fablehaven series in weeks. I became the “slow” parent I’ve always longed to be.

“It makes me want to fall so far out of the loop that I have no idea how to climb back on.”

In reality, I’m also a hopped-up over-achiever; I’ve never liked failing or falling behind. But back in Cambridge, what I notice now are far more competing demands on my time and—more to the point—the expectation that communication happens 24/7. It makes me want to fall so far out of the loop that I have no idea how to climb back on.

Technology-wise, there’s no need to be out of touch with anybody. But after spending a few months halfway around the world, I know there are good reasons to be unavailable, whether it’s because of a 12-hour time difference or because you’re taking a break from your normal work life.

Friends and I have long joked about wishing time were a rubber band, one that could be pulled and stretched to fit any shape. But simply getting more hours in the day implies that you get to do more—and I don’t want to do more. I didn’t want to do more in Singapore. I wanted to pay full attention to what I was already seeing and doing.

The question, of course, is how to recreate a different pace and ability to focus back home. Some of what I’m complaining about can’t be changed right now. It has to do with being middle-aged and caught between raising a child and my elderly parents, with financial demands.

“Small changes, yes? And probably doomed.”

Still, I’m trying to read in the morning before I plonk myself in front of a computer. Sometimes I write in my private journal. I’ve resolved not to check my email until I’ve done two hours of writing.

My husband and I are limiting our son’s screen time to an hour a day—and his use of the iPad, that tool of the multitasking devil—to only a few days a week. I’ve asked my husband not to check his smartphone while we’re eating dinner (sometimes he grumblingly complies). I’ve asked him and my son not to talk at me simultaneously. We’re working on taking conversational turns.

Small changes, yes? And probably doomed.

Still, it’s my personal crusade against multitasking. I use "crusade" partly as a joke but also because of its many resonances. As a spiritual mission, I’ve already failed the first tests (must check my email RIGHT NOW! must post to this blog!), and maybe I’ll never find my gleaming grail.

But, ye few good people of faith, I say unto you: Let the journey set you free.

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