* Editor’s note: Marion is taking the day off. This column ran in slightly different form in 2006.
If I tell you exactly what I’m doing at this moment, it will sound perfectly normal to you.
I’m making coffee. I’m fiddling with my router, which has been having problems lately. I’m checking email.
I’m also checking the weather forecast. I’m thinking of calling my Internet provider. I’m working on this column.
The word for what I’m doing is multi-tasking, America’s way of life.
I will continue in this path all day, cooking while viewing television, driving to the sound of an audio book, talking on the phone while walking around the house picking up laundry. At any time, a second telephone might ring.
Not so many years ago, I didn’t have the remote that allows me to change channels from the kitchen, the CD player that makes it easy to listen to a book in the car, or the mobile phone. But as a parent of small children and a part-time worker, I multi-tasked constantly, even without these conveniences.
To be honest, I like multi-tasking, but it doesn’t guarantee fulfillment — nor even success at the multiple tasks.
Instead, I miss things, like the column idea that escaped me while I was checking email, or the expression on my husband’s face that disappeared while I was changing the channel. (Don’t get me started on what I missed when the woman in front of me started multi-tasking in the movie theatre. She was on the phone.)
Multi-tasking gives me illusion of doing more, but often I’m accomplishing less.
My New Year’s resolution is to see if I can uni-task again.
I know it’s going to be difficult when even the word I invented sounds funny. Uni-tasking? What’s that?
Uni-tasking means doing only one thing at a time. It means thinking about that one thing before I work on it and reflecting on it after I’m done. It means devoting all my mental and physical power to one objective, but not in that frantic way we adopt when we’re pressed for time.
I envision a lot more of what might be called daydreaming, both before and after the task at hand.
My friend “Elizabeth” uni-tasks, and I swear she sees depths of the human psyche that I miss entirely. I’d like to adopt something of her style. When we meet for breakfast (our favorite), I can tell she’s been thinking about what to discuss. She has considered which of the dozens of things going on in her life might intersect with mine and lead to fruitful conversation.
She sometimes calls me a few hours later. She has been thinking about what we discussed. She has new ideas. Meanwhile, I’ve been on the phone with my Internet provider, visited another friend, tinkered with three writing projects, and gone food shopping.
I’m usually eager to continue our conversation, but I’m always playing catch-up because I didn’t take time to sit still and think. The tremendous respect she shows me by considering my words and coming back to them later is not something I confer on other people.
I’m not the only one who fails to do this.
My husband, another notorious multi-tasker, has eyes that give him away. As we near the end of a conversation, or maybe when he thinks we’re nearing the end even though I don’t, his eyes start moving and I know he’s onto the next task. It doesn’t feel good to be dismissed in this way, and yet I know I do it to other people.
Conversation over? I move on.
I race through my day like a speedboat, instead of taking time to settle into my kayak, study the current, and dip my paddle in.
Uni-tasking means going slowly.
It means adding the before (thinking about what I’m going to do) and the after (thinking about what just happened). Frankly, I’m so used to being speedy that it sounds very difficult.
I enjoy the excitement of a fast pace, but I’m learning that good ideas develop slowly. I can only go deep if I bump into things more than once, the way you remember a person’s name after two encounters, or three, or get to know a movie star after her second movie, or third, at which point you’re developing an understanding of the actress, what roles she likes, where she shines, and you’re becoming fond of her one-sided dimple.
Multi-tasking is the forest, full of delights, variety, and the feeling of accomplishing something because you’re doing a lot.
Uni-tasking is the tree. At first you fear you’re missing something. Then you start noticing details — bark, grain, placement of branches, nuts that squirrels have stuffed into notches — everything that makes the tree an individual, and you realize that what looks simple is very complex.
My New Year’s resolution?