04.29.14 Monotasking

Before this week’s post, I just want to send congratulations and best wishes to my Amp’d co-host and fellow blogger Peggy Chenoweth (aka The Amputee Mommy) who, true to her blogging handle, has become a new mom for the second time. Peggy and I will continue to record Amp’d, though the early arrival of Timothy may delay future podcasts a bit. But never fear – having a second child should provide ample fodder for fascinating future discussions and Amputee Mommy blog posts (which, after all, was (I’m sure) the reason Peggy and Scott decided to have another kid in the first place.) Congratulations, Peggy and Scott!

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My kids think that they can multitask. So do many of my friends and professional peers. Unfortunately (for them), they’re all wrong. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that driving while texting is 6 times more dangerous than driving drunk. Apparently, I could more safely hop on the PCH in a borrowed Porsche with a bottle of Grey Goose intravenously dripping into my femoral artery than if I tried to text Cara, “This car is wicked fast,” while shooting up the California coast.

I love my iPhone, use both an iPad and a Kindle Fire, have an Apple laptop for personal use and a work-issued PC: I’m a “tech guy.” But I don’t have any illusions about my ability to multitask.

I was in the midst of a lengthy phone call yesterday with a peer from work. Jackson entered the room and signaled that he wanted to ask me something. I held up one finger to stop him. His eyes grew wider, his eyebrows lifted up, and he gestured excitedly with his hands. He knows not to interrupt my work phone calls unless it’s important, so his insistence led me to conclude that something momentous had occurred. Had he accidentally discovered a portal to a new dimension while playing Titanfall? Had Max suddenly (and silently) been eaten by a pack of rabid raccoons while lying in his bed?

I turned my attention to him, breathless with anticipation. Jackson proceeded to mime the act of buying a gyro and eating it. From this, I learned two important things: (1) my definition of important (wormholes into other dimensions; death of a child) and Jackson’s (“I’m hungry”) are not the same; and (2) I heard nothing my friend on the other end of the line was saying as soon as I started watching Jackson’s silent one-man show.

Research suggests that my experience is the rule, not the exception. Most disturbing, it suggests that people who believe they multitask the best are actually the worst at it. While I have a demonstrated (and near-pathological) need to be right and admit no weakness, I’ve never seriously contended that I could do more than one thing at a time. While I can’t definitively demonstrate that where this singular area of honesty about my limitations came from, I have a hypothesis: I believe it’s because I walk with a prosthesis.

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When I owned a prosthetic facility, I constantly saw myself walking. We had mirrors everywhere so that patients could get immediate feedback about what they looked like. In this small world of reflections, the act of evaluating my gait to the exclusion of everything else became easy. If I saw something amiss – vaulting up on my sound foot, dropping my shoulder down and back at heel strike – I could immediately self-correct.

This kind of physical self-monitoring soon extended beyond the walls of my office. When walking down the street I’d pay close attention to the angle of my knee at heel strike – was it slightly bent or fully extended? – or the length of my stride on my prosthesis compared to my sound leg. Was I rigidly holding my shoulders in place or relaxing them? What was precisely the right moment to let my prosthetic heel hit the ground?

The act of walking, something I had taken for granted the first 27 years of my life, now required attention. My focus on the tiniest details of gait biomechanics left no room for other activities. I became a serial monotasker, at least when putting one front in front of the other.

When I moved to my current job and found myself in a largely mirrorless world, I found (and still find) myself slipping into multitask mode. Usually, my walking suffers at the expense of the other activity. In perhaps the best illustration of my stunning inability to do two things simultaneously, I face planted on Capitol Hill a few weeks ago while walking and trying to enter information to download a new app for my phone. Nothing reminds you that you can’t multitask like visiting congressional staffers with ripped pants and blood pouring out of your hand.

While I find myself slipping into multitasking mode occasionally, for the most part I resist its pull. I’ve made all kinds of decisions to remind myself that “the other thing” I could be doing should wait. I have no audible alerts on my computer or phone to notify me when a new email gets pushed to my Inbox. I’ve disabled all pop-up notifications on every device I own. On my phone, I’ve eliminated push capability entirely so that I don’t see the red number of unopened emails climb the longer I fail to visit Outlook. In meetings, I usually put my phone in airplane mode and close my laptop. And most recently, I’ve started to limit my email consumption to only two daily visits: once in the late morning and once in the late afternoon.

I’ll admit that these monotasking safeguards sometimes cause me to panic. What if Medicare publishes a new policy that adversely impacts my company? What if someone sends me an emergency email and I need to get working on it right away? I’ve learned that these “what ifs” are largely hypothetical scenarios. Out of the millions of pieces of information competing for my attention every year, fewer than 5 (maximum) ever fall into these buckets. My professional life doesn’t go sideways when I climb on a coast-to-coast flight without wifi access, despite the fact that I’m not responding to anyone (or anything) during that 6-hour period. You don’t get fired for being unreachable while in an all-day offsite business meeting. What we think will happen if we don’t multitask doesn’t happen.

Mindful of this reality, and remembering that I only walk well when I focus on the act of walking, I will continue to monotask while the world around me checks its email for the 99th time before noon. I’ll take my chances.



2 thoughts on “Monotasking

    • I’ve actually heard that the part of the brain that permits multiple activities at the same time is thicker in women than men, meaning that while no one can truly multitask (from a digital perspective) very well, women are actually physically designed to handle more things simultaneously than men. I don’t know if that’s scientifically true or not, but based on what transpires in my house and comparing my abilities to Cara’s, I have no reason to dispute it! 😉

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