We all know that multitasking is a bad idea. Sometimes it’s deadly (e.g. texting and driving) but mostly it’s just inefficient. I’ve been trying to write this article while watching a college basketball game. It’s taken me much of the second half, and I’m not actually sure who’s ahead.
But there are exceptions. Multitasking can be an arrow in the productive person’s quiver. Indeed, combining multiple activities is part of life. Taking a client out to dinner is technically multitasking: you’re conducting business and eating at the same time. Yet few of us think that’s a bad idea. Or to use an example from Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book, The Distraction Addiction, cooking dinner is multitasking. If you wait until the vegetables are roasted to boil the water for rice you will never get food on the table.
The key is to combine activities that use different parts of your brain and complement, rather than distract from, each other. Some people talk about combining mental and physical tasks, or else doing "background tasking" as Dave Crenshaw calls it in The Myth of Multitasking. I like to refer to these ideas as "aligning" your time. Here are some ways you can multitask without getting in trouble.
Folding the laundry is boring. Talking with a friend suffuses this task with enough joy that it more than makes up for the inefficiency. Same with emptying the dishwasher.
I recently dug out some CDs that I found deeply moving decades ago while in the throes of teenage angst. Bringing back those memories has made driving to the train station a lot more interesting. A lecture from an insightful professor, or an audiobook, can likewise brighten dead hours.
Few programs demand your full attention, but watching someone on the Food Network make brunch can make a half hour on the treadmill go faster.
This is an even better version of multitasking than #3. Many weeks, the only friend I see in person is the one who runs six miles with me on Friday mornings.
Pace the halls (or going outside if it’s nice) for any meeting involving three or fewer people. It’s actually easier to have difficult conversations while walking. You channel any nervous energy into moving your arms and legs.
Who says you have to go to the grocery store alone? Go with your spouse and score some quality time. Go pick up your dry cleaning at the same time as a friend and turn this chore into a social occasion.
You can replace batteries, mend pants, stamp letters, shuck corn, etc., without missing a bit of the plot.
Lots of people want stronger abs. Lots of people also put food in the microwave for a minute here and there during the day. These things can go together. While a 60-second plank pose won’t cancel out that microwave popcorn, it will mitigate some of the damage. A few push-ups can work too. Even if you’re in a crowded office kitchen, you can still stretch without too many people staring.
While this isn’t the origin of the phrase "pot-boiler," you can read a magazine article or even a scene in a novel while waiting for water to boil or a pan to heat up.
Yes, you’d have more fun in a crowded sports bar, but if that’s not on the agenda, you can recreate the camaraderie with your favorite fellow hashtag users.
When do you multitask—and feel no guilt about it?
[Image: Flickr user Eric Schmuttenmaer]