The Curse of Multitasking

“I hate multitasking,” I found myself screaming the other day.

This is not a rant about the coming death of civilization due to high tech gadgets and the modern pressure to work 24/7. What brought me to the freakout point wasn’t ordinary multiasking. I do fine with ordinary multitasking.

One of the real advantages of working at home is that I can put a casserole on to cook, do the laundry, and do routine tasks for my job like checking email and combing through my RSS feed and press releases looking for news to cover all at the same time. I can even write a simple work story and do those things. And I don’t find it difficult to go back and forth between tasks related to Book View Cafe and ordinary work assignments.

No, the kind of multitasking that I abhor is facing the same looming deadline for a complex work assignment and a piece of fiction. It’s dealing with urgent minor tasks while simultaneously wrestling with complicated ones. On the day I found myself screaming, I was juggling a very complicated work story, an equally complicated essay I’d promised to a literary magazine, my father’s health and business issues, and several more minor issues of my own such as bills and doctors’ appointments. And every thing needed attention that day.

This is a particular curse for writers, but it’s a problem for anyone who does the kind of work that involves long periods of intense concentration. The problem isn’t getting rid of ordinary distractions. For all the talk about overflowing email inboxes, email is pretty easy to ignore until you’re ready to goof off for a few minutes. I can put off the laundry and keep the cooking down to simple meals when I’m really busy.

No, the problem occurs when I need to write a complicated story — whether it’s an assignment for my day job or a piece of fiction or other personal writing I’m trying to finish on a deadline — but also need to make calls on behalf of my father, which will likely involve long periods of time on hold or someone calling me back. I find it very hard to concentrate on complicated ideas and worry about my father’s needs at the same time. Complex stories — whether fiction or nonfiction — require focus, and interruptions break that focus. And that means that after every interruption, I have to spend time getting back to the task at hand.

The crux of the matter is that when I’m working on something that requires my full attention, even the possibility that I might be interrupted puts me off my stride. It’s even worse when I’m having to push myself to finish the story on time — which can happen with both work assignments and writing fiction. There are times when even the projects that are close to your heart are an effort to finish.

The irony is that I’m a person who is interested in lots of different, complicated things. It’s not just that I have a day job that can sometimes be complicated and must be done so that I can continue to eat, nor is it just that I have an elderly father who needs my help. I’d still manage to complicate my own life by taking on too many difficult projects even if I didn’t have those responsibilities.

I may hate multitasking, but I like pursuing multiple ideas. When I first come across a new idea and am all excited, I think this is a blessing. But at crunch time, I know it’s a curse.
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ChangelingMy novella Changeling is now available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.

My story “New Lives” is in the lastest Book View Cafe ebook anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy II.

My 51 flash fictions and a few other stories are still available for free on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s.

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The Curse of Multitasking — 5 Comments

  1. Sometimes a good rant, a tantrum, spitting the dummy (Aussie word for pacifier), chucking a hissy fit, venting, is all we need to do to get on with it.

  2. For myself, I find that nothing gets the laundry done faster than having a paper to write that’s due the next Monday; and nothing gets the paper written faster than having a huge pile of laundry to do. For what that’s worth.

  3. Oh, yeah. I have a writing project I really need to finish, so last weekend I got a good start on the cleaning projects that have been piling up.

    And ranting is good.

  4. If I’m stressing out about a writing assignment I manage to forget all the little things. I do the short assignments and remember to go to the apartment hunting appointments, but I forget to turn in the homework, to pay the rent, and to wash my hair.
    Disaster.

  5. Well said, Nancy! One of the problems I’m having with keeping my blog updated is the rush of other work that requires deep thought. If I wanted to throw any old piece of garbage up there, it would be easy, but I find that I can’t write anything with any depth — whether it’s a blog post or a magazine article or fiction — without taking time to think about it and rewrite, and even, dare I say, let the thing sit for a few days before hitting Send or Post.

    As I was considering your post, Nancy, my first thought was that, well, I’m just getting old, but I don’t think that’s the problem. When I was younger, my writing was shallow. Now, I expect more of myself and get rather irked when I’m not in a position to do it.

    And so it goes…