When Multitasking is the only writing choice

Walter Kirn is the author of Up in Air, a novel that greatly contributed to my decision to quit a job that was slowly killing me. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite get the message and I jumped back into the frying pan.

Now Walter has returned in the latest Atlantic Monthly with this gem:

The Autumn of the Multitaskers

I’ve been fired, I’ve been insulted in front of co-workers, but the time I flew thousands of miles to meet a boss who spent our first and only hour together politely nodding at my proposals while thumbing out messages on a new device, whose existence neither of us acknowledged and whose screen he kept tilted so I couldn’t see it, still feels, five years later, like the low point of my career.

I know how that feels. Oh, pain.

Like I said, instead of getting on with my writing I went back to work. Mouths to feed, you know. But now, in the hectic world of the day job, being a father, a husband, and what-all-else of the suburban dad. I’m still trying to hack my way towards finishing another book. I’m multitasking alright, straight into the grave.

This is the great irony of multitasking—that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking. It forces us to chop competing tasks into pieces, set them in different piles, then hunt for the pile we’re interested in, pick up its pieces, review the rules for putting the pieces back together, and then attempt to do so, often quite awkwardly. (Fact, and one more reason the bubble will pop: A brain attempting to perform two tasks simultaneously will, because of all the back-and-forth stress, exhibit a substantial lag in information processing.)

Productive? Efficient? More like running up and down a beach repairing a row of sand castles as the tide comes rolling in and the rain comes pouring down. Multitasking, a definition: “The attempt by human beings to operate like computers, often done with the assistance of computers.” It begins by giving us more tasks to do, making each task harder to do, and dimming the mental powers required to do them. It finishes by making us forget exactly how on earth we did them (assuming we didn’t give up, or “multi­quit”), which makes them harder to do again.

Multiquit! What a fantastic word to describe the great piles of manuscript fragments littering my studio and filling up my hard drive.

But you can’t read an article like this and suddenly quit your job. You can’t give up your workaday world for the promise of what might be. At least, I’m not going to suggest that. However, you can fight against the tide of multitasking. You can build focus in your day and realize that by shaving moments here and there you are only cheating yourself in the long run.

Hang in there you multitasking writers! Hang in there!

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