Thursday, 6 May 2010

One track mind

I'm absurdly unmasculine most of the time, but in one way I'm typically male. I'm complete shite at multi-tasking.

Give me two things to do at the same time and I'm guaranteed to mess them both up. Cook a meal and read the paper? You can be sure I'll end up burning the pasta and not taking in anything I'm reading. If I try to split my mind between two things, each half seizes up and confusion sets in.

Jenny however is typically female here and can multi-task easily. She'll do the ironing, listen to the radio, plan an academic article and check her emails - and do it all competently. She switches from one to the other effortlessly, somehow keeping everything in focus.

That's all very well, says the average bloke, but attending to one thing at a time just has to produce better results than spreading your brain all over the shop. How can you possibly do four things at once and do them all properly?

It's galling to admit, but actually women probably do do all four things properly. Homing in on one thing doesn't necessarily pay. You can get stuck in a mental rut, going round and round in circles. Whereas hopping between different things keeps the brain flexible and stimulated, keeps the creative juices circulating.

But I'm hopeless at it. I can't even have a conversation and do something else at the same time. If I don't concentrate totally on what I'm saying, the words stop flowing, I get confused, and I end up stuttering like a lunatic.

Jenny knows not to talk too much when I'm driving in case my attention wanders and the next thing you know I'll be hurtling through red traffic lights, knocking down innocent old ladies and skidding into shop windows.

I suspect it's not a natural male trait, it's the way I was brought up. Multi-tasking was simply not expected of me because "boys just can't do it, can they?" So surprise surprise, I became as incapable as they assumed. And a one-track mind is the consequence.

28 comments:

Leah said...

I wonder about this--whether or not it's a male trait somehow--because I too have observed that men are nearly universally poor at multi-tasking. But possibly it's also expectation, and a case of nature and nurture.

Frankly, I HATE multi-tasking, though I'm extremely good at it...

Rummuser said...

Nick by choice I am a one thing at a time man. By compulsion I became a househusband and like all good housewives I became capable of multitasking. You can't escape it if you are running a home and I learnt it the hard way. Many a liter of milk has boiled over, many a curry burnt etc but now I am a wizard!

Nick said...

Leah - Never under-estimate the insidious power of gender-stereotyping! Interesting that you hate multi-tasking but do it well. I suspect lots of other women would say the same!

Ramana - So you're now an accomplished multi-tasker? Very impressive. I imagine having children is one of the biggest incentives to multi-task!

meno said...

So for birth control Jenny gives you a stick of gum at bedtime? :)

Wisewebwoman said...

I wasn't even aware of my capacity to multi-task until I was a controller of a large corporation in the early seventies. One of my subordinates (a man) was astonished when he overheard me organizing my children's day on the telephone, then a party for the weekend, then hiring a temp for the payroll department while given him instructions on credit management. I thought everyone did life in this way.
I remember discussing it with working women friends none of whom had partners who could accomplish what we did in a day.
It possibly goes back to prehistoric times when the man focussed on the hunt only and women had to do everything else including birthing their children unattended.
XO
WWW

Nick said...

Meno - You mean because then I'm unable to concentrate on anything else? Very good. Unfortunately chewing is something I can manage to combine with other activities...

Or is that your usual sarcasm, lol?

www - I think the NEED to multi-task, in order to get things done, is one thing that forces over-committed women to acquire the skill. Men are allowed to get away with simply not doing things.

Shelly Rayedeane said...

You're being very kind, but the truth is not all women are good at multitasking. Some of it has to do with intelligence level, but not all of it. It is mainly about the ability to focus and it is a trade most people can teach their brains to do with practice.

This is the reason some people can't even turn the heater on in their car while driving without crashing. A person who can focus will often instinctively know where the button is at, not look down, and drive at the same time.

Whereas, some people will glance down at the knob and then end up turning their steering wheel in the wrong direction instead of focusing on the most important task first.

I used to work for the police department and they have proven most people can not pass the multitasking portion of the test who are male or who are females who do not have children.

Strangely enough, bilateral hearing comes easier to people who practice it all the time. Therefore, the only reason most women are better at it then men is because they
have already honed their skills by listening to one child playing in one room while doing dishes in another room.

I was actually one of the few people, to pass the multitasking portion of the test, who was not a parent, and I had a very difficult time multitasking. It has absolutely nothing to do with intelligence and more to do with learning focusing techniques or learning to tap into the portion of the mind involving intuition.

Nick said...

Shelly - Thanks for that very interesting comment. Your point about relying on instinct makes sense. If you can do a lot of routine things on instinct without having to think about them, that makes multi-tasking much easier.

Also intriguing that the worst multi-taskers are men and childless women, which echoes what I suggested earlier. And good point about children honing listening skills.

I see you also believe as I do that multi-tasking skills can be learnt and that they aren't just gender-specific. I have to admit my own focussing techniques are not too good!

Nick said...

Shelly - A curious detail here re your comments on childless women. Although Jenny is an excellent multi-tasker, we have no children! But she is always extremely over-committed....

Baino said...

Actually recent research on the ability to multi task has it turned on it's ear. Multi taskers often miss finer details so it's not all it's cracked up to be. And believe me, if we (women) could just do one thing at a time, I think most would prefer it. OK this only relates to multi tasking with different media but I do it every day: web, internal apps, phone http://news.stanford.edu/news/2009/august24/multitask-research-study-082409.html

The only multi tasking I'm interested in is sitting in the shade and drinking chardy at the same time!

Nick said...

Baino - A fascinating bit of research. So on three different measures, multi-taskers actually performed worse than the single-taskers. Constantly distracted and trying to deal with too much at once. Interesting that you think most women would prefer not to multi-task! Sitting in the shade with some chardy - sounds good to me.

kylie said...

hey nick,
i commented here this morning but must have exited without actually publishing............

anyway, it was just a bit of a rant about a friend of mine who cannot multi task and i drives me INSANE when she's on the phone to me and watching tv or doing something on the computer. it takes ten minutes to have a 2 minute conversation.

i dont multi task very well

Nick said...

Kylie - I find it really annoying and rude when someone can't concentrate on a conversation and insists on doing other things at the same time. Like checking their mobile every two minutes.

secret agent woman said...

I believe the research shows that acorss the board, people who multi-task don't do quite as well at any of the tasks as they would if they concentrated on one thing. Still, I wonder if there is some biological push for women to have developed that ability - with a newborn you quickly discover that you can cook and do most other household tasks with one hand while holding your kid on your hip with the other.

Nick said...

Secret Agent - It looks as if motherhood is a strong incentive to multi-tasking, given all the new time-consuming chores you have to get through. Funny how fatherhood doesn't work the same way though. Daddy can just nip off to the office....

Megan said...

Shoot, I think my comment just disappeared, as well. ARGH. (I'll try and reconstruct.)

Nick said...

Megan - Please do, these comments are getting very interesting! Blogger is doing all sorts of peculiar things at the moment. Comments keep vanishing and then popping up five minutes later.

I suspect that like me you're not a good multi-tasker. Especially if you never know what you're doing, lol....

Kate said...

Hmmm - I think its down to the individual - my son can multi task but it depends what the tasks are - my daughter is like me and multi tasks the good jobs with the not so good!!!
Maybe its just a good excuse!

niamh said...

Like Shelly I think it depends on what you're used to doing. I used to be a secondary school teacher and boy could I multi-task. Now I can chill out and focus on one thing at a time (without someone setting fire to the bin in the back!) and life is calmer but less multi-tasking skills

Nick said...

Kate - Yes, multi-tasking the good with the bad sounds ideal. If only I could manage it....

Niamh - So that's another incentive to multi-tasking, being a teacher. And if you're both a teacher and a mum, you should be a multi-tasking genius!

Quickroute said...

Give me the task to pick 3 things up from the shop and I'll always forget one!

Nick said...

Quicky - Ah, but shopping for three items doesn't count as multi-tasking. Or if it does, I'm actually a wonderful multi-tasker, I can shop for at least two dozen items simultaneously!

Hullaballoo said...

Nick, I thought I could multi-task, being a girlie, however I conduct a series of tasks, all of which are left unfinished. Guess I need to learn some lessons too lol.

Nick said...

Hulla - Good point. Do all these apparently expert multi-taskers actually finish everything? Or do they leave all the loose ends for someone else to deal with?

heartinsanfrancisco said...

It was said about President Gerald Ford that he could not walk and chew gum at the same time. They said it as if other men could.

Nick said...

Heart - My image of gum-chewing men is always stationary, leaning idly against a wall and chewing gum insolently.

Liz said...

I am useless at multi-tasking. My husband can tell when I am thinking as I stop doing everything else!

Nick said...

Liz - Same here! If I'm thinking hard, it's impossible for me to concentrate properly on anything else.