Against Multitasking

I don’t know that I’m so much against it, as I am bad at it. Over the years, it seems that multitasking has been glorified as an essential skill, not only for jobs that almost inherently require it like receptionist work (which I spent a year struggling with), but also a variety of jobs in apparently every field and sector. Why must the “ideal candidate” almost always be an exceptional multitasker, I wonder?

It’s a strange concept, when you think about it. “Multitasking” is a fancy word for “the ability to be continually interrupted by other demands (whether projects or people) and still be able to function doing one’s primary task at full capacity.” At least, that’s what it seemed to suggest to me during my year in my unsuited job as a receptionist (“office administrator” was my official title), as I tried my best to fulfill my main duty of editing reports error-free, while also completing odd jobs (they were always a rush) by one or both of my employers, cordially greeting clients, and graciously answering the never-ceasing-to-ring phone.

Now, I am confident there are those who are genuinely gifted multitaskers, but I am not one of them. Perhaps part of it has to do with my being an introvert: I work best in quiet and calm, focusing on a single task at a time. I tend to get into a flow and can concentrate, if uninterrupted, for hours. Let’s just say open concept offices are not for me.

For my writing, I now have the luxury of my own little home office, with an L-shaped desk (I bought it after my year of receptionist work: one positive from that job was having a workspace in which to really spread my work out). In my office I also have bookshelves lining three walls, a rug under my feet, and a view overlooking the backyard. Not a bad place to work.

But I’ve found there are different kinds of multitasking that I still struggle with, even in this rather ideal setting. Oh, I’m not talking about the internet (which I posted about not too long ago), or even being interrupted by outside distractions. Rather, I’ve found that as a writer, when I’m into the thick of a project, I’m unable to produce any other creative writing. That is, I can’t multitask my writing. It’s like my brain only has the maximum capacity for creativity of one.

For the past few months, I’ve been steadily working away on my conference paper, while  continuing to blog. But as the deadline approached and I spent more energy writing my paper, it became more and more difficult to come up with content for my blog: I still gave myself time for blogging, but it was as though my creative energies were stretched thin. I dropped down from posting twice a week, to once a week, and then not at all, disappearing for a good month and a half while I worked almost exclusively on finishing my paper. All the books I read were research for it; all my writing was directed towards it (I even, to a large degree, dropped my journal writing for a few weeks). I thought about my paper almost incessantly until I didn’t have to be deliberate to be working on it: one morning I woke up dreaming about it.

Now, I’ll admit I kind of begrudged my own inability to multitask with my writing. Shouldn’t I be able to handle blogging just once a week while finishing this paper, I chided myself? My inability to multitask has been a mild frustration for me (and others) over the years, but I’ve also learned a lot from it. One thing is that I do tend to produce better work when I have one project that I can be focusing on at a time. Another is a surprising discovery: that I can in fact multitask (though perhaps in an unorthodox way) and that it can actually enhance my writing.

In the past, I’ve tried to sit myself in my chair for hours on end until I’ve finished writing whatever it is I was working on, giving myself strict deadlines and consequences for quitting early. But those kinds of harsh restrictions don’t seem to be as productive (or fun) for me as working diligently on a piece of writing for a time, but also having the freedom to get up and do something else when I need to work out a writing problem in my mind. Cleaning — something I don’t inherently enjoy — tends to help me sort out my thoughts and allows me to return to my desk with a clear (clean?) head. Or it could be anything that doesn’t require those same creative faculties needed to write: I could do an errand, mow the lawn, prepare dinner. These necessary tasks, which I would historically have seen as interruptions to my creative flow, actually enable me to write better.

I suppose it’s not multitasking outright: am I really doing more than one thing at a time? (which seems to be the etymological denotation of the word). I am in fact doing more than one thing: outwardly I’m doing whatever physical task but inwardly I’m doing another. As far as my own practical understanding of the word goes — “the ability . . . to function doing one’s primary task at full capacity” — I seem to, after all, be doing alright.

Question: How do you approach creative projects and multitasking?