Sunday, July 1, 2007


I first encountered the term “multitask” in connection with the huge mainframe computers I worked on in the 1960’s and 70’s. Big iron. They were designed to “timeslice”, to literally slice seconds into unimaginably small intervals, during which they’d pick up a task, perform some small portion of it, table that task, and direct attention to another job waiting for its tiny share. In time, all jobs finished. And the miracle was, it looked like the computer accomplished it all at once! The overall time was actually greater than the sum of execution times for all individual jobs, since the computer bore the overhead to bookmark each one, put it aside, and pick up the next from where it left off. But we’re just talking a total of seconds or minutes here. The perception was that everyone got their output at the same time. Everybody was happy.

Computers multitask really well. Email, Internet surfing, word processing, applications – all going on at once, while sporting a pretty, user-friendly, graphical face. In the years since I first began working with them, the amount of computing power available to casual users has become staggering! I marvel at what I carry around in a pack on my back; it’s more raw power than a roomful of equipment in the old days!

Yes, computers multitask really well, but humans tend to fail miserably at it. I know this human does.

In my brand of multitasking, I start something… reading an article, for example. As I’m reading, a thought intrudes. “This reminds me of….” Or, “I wonder if I have time to….” Or, “I haven’t heard from….”

Suddenly, I’m staring at a page and can’t remember why. Before I figure it out, I remember there was a competing thought I wanted to address, but it passed in and out of my brain before I could document it and now it’s gone too. I’ve lost both trains of thought. I stare around my office, looking for the inspiration that might bring back one or the other thread, and see evidence of many other such objectives competing for my attention.

I’ve always been this way. I remember taking pride when a colleague observed admiringly, “You don’t think in a straight line.” The comment was intended as compliment. It came from a man, who chalked some of it up to multiple streams of female intuition. And in fact, when I was younger and feeling really on top of my game, perceptions came from every part of my being at once, and I could more easily hold two thoughts in my head at the same time.

Today is different.

There are the usual factors: life is a busy thoroughfare, overcrowded with details of multiple goals, hampered possibly by the onset of age-related memory loss.

But today I have an additional distraction. Whereas last month I simply had a busy life, now I have a new number one priority. This new priority has my attention; it’s life-threatening. Everything I start takes on a new urgency: Will I be able to finish this before my number one comes knocking with a new demand? My former number ones don’t stop screaming for attention, but they can get knocked out of the box anytime.

Concentration and focus are hard to come by. I have to remember to keep breathing….


SusieQ said...

Your description sounds more like Attention Deficit Disorder, not multitasking.

I've got the same symptoms and I have learned to write EVERYTHING down before the thoughts go away.

"I have to remember to keep breathing…."

Fortunately, your body will take care if this if you forget. ;-)

Ceil said...

You're right. I didn't mention it in the entry, but I put ADD as one of the tags at the bottom of the post.

As for breathing, yes, thank goodness the autonomic takes care of itself! I meant it more as a means of slowing down and staying in control.