Multi-tasking: Myth or The New Zen?

March 30, 2009

My family were trying to work out what to do over the school holidays while I am in San Diego. We were seated for dinner. “Lets have a family meeting”, my hub suggested.

“Oh great. I’m glad we’re having the meeting during dinner time. It means we can multi-task”, said Sally beaming and proudly anticipating the beginning of the meeting so that she could “multi-task”.

This reply came from our nine year-old! How had Sally come to value multi-tasking as an end in itself? Is this practice widely acknowledged by modern children as worthwhile? I’ve been thinking about Sally’s response and brought it up as a topic of conversation recently with other parents. The result was a circular conversation, the logic of which went something like this:

Is the skill of multi-tasking a worthy aspiration? As an example of an alternative way of thinking, buddhism would emphasise the importance of being present in the moment. If you are sweeping the floor, then you are only sweeping the floor. You’re not also on the phone and cooking a batch of muffins and checking your emails. Being present in the moment, which I’m interpreting as doing one thing at a time, is the pathway to happiness and enlightenment. Only through being present in the moment can you achieve a state of zen.

Is it relevant that Sally is female? Has multi-tasking become something girls in particular have come to identify with and aspire to?

The myth goes like this: women can multi task and men cannot.

But this is just a myth, like any other myth. There are hundreds of myths and stereotypes that circulate unreflected upon in our common discourses. For example, the myth that all men ever think about is sex. For a start, why can’t women think about sex as often as men? And secondly, this cannot even be true. If all men ever thought about was sex, how could Bill Gates have created Microsoft, or Rupert Murdoch his media empire?

They could have been multi-tasking, I suppose…

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