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Are You a Multi-tasker or a Person Who Focuses?

     The other day I was driving along Highway 94, listening to KPBS and looking at a column of smoke coming up over the hills to the left and reaching for a Kleenex and watching the other drivers to be sure they didn’t swerve into my lane when the word “multi-tasker” got my attention.

     I forgot the Kleenex, forgot the smoke, forgot the other driv… no, I didn’t go that far, but suddenly I was focused. I’ve always considered myself to be pretty good at multi-tasking – I almost can’t think of a time when I wasn’t multi-tasking - so I wondered what this was all about.

     It turns out this guy – I don’t remember his name or credentials, but he had them. He’d just finished a study of multi-taskers where he compared them to people who focus on one thing at a time, whom I will call PWF’s from here on. It’s hard to believe there’s anyone left in this texting, Twittering, gadget-driven age who focuses on only one thing at a time, but there must be a few because several thousand people took part in t study.

     This guy talked about our brains and how they process information and how multi-taskers hop back and forth in their brains from one thing to another while PWF’s focus on only one thing and move on to the next item only when they’re done with the first. He was sure his study would show that multi-taskers have some special gene or their brain cells have a special way of processing information that PWF’s don’t have and that’s why they could do so many things all at once.

     It didn’t. He couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe it. But it gets worse. The study results showed that when multi-taskers and PWF’s are given five tasks to do at once, guess who does them faster? And better?

     The PWF’s. They did a better job of multi-tasking than multi-taskers. So now the guy wants to know why. He said he has a few ideas, but he’s going to have to do a new study. He thinks maybe multi-taskers are more sensitive to their environment than PWF’s and notice every little thing that goes on around them and this distracts them from all their many tasks.

     Noticing the fly landing on the window while we’re talking on the phone and searching the Internet for a pair of walking shoes and pulling out the file drawer distracts us so we forget to listen to the person on the other end and have to ask them what they said. That makes our fingers slip on the computer keys, which causes the file drawer to bang into our knee. The PWF - she never notices the fly. She’s totally focused on her phone conversation, the quality of which is top-notch. Seconds later, she hangs up the phone and goes to the Internet, where she finds her shoes while we’re still on the phone and looking for a website that sells shoes and rubbing our knee and slamming the dang file drawer shut.

     She doesn’t have a file drawer. Sorry. But you get the idea. The PWF’s miss out on all that other stuff going on, but they get the job done because they’re totally tuned in. We multi-taskers notice everything going on around us – you know, the flies and stuff…

     I’m stuck. I’m a confirmed multi-tasker. What could be better than sitting at Starbucks and talking to the old guy waiting in line and sipping on a caramel frappucino while tapping out a column on your computer? 

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