Arrive Magazine, September-October 2003

    Final Stop:
    Ready, Set…Multitask!
    If there's one thing harder than trying to do it all, it's trying to do it
    allat once.

    By Bruce Kluger

    See if you recall this image.

    You’re thirteen years old, and dashing
    out of the house. Passing through the
    kitchen, you spot your mother. She’s
    talking on the phone, the receiver
    cradled against her cheek, her shoulder
    scrunched to keep it in place. With her
    left hand, she turns down the stove, and
    with her right, grabs three tomatoes from
    the refrigerator (whose door she closes
    with the nearest available foot). Catching
    sight of you--and without a break in her
    conversation—she somehow produces a
    third arm, grabs your jacket from a hook
    on the wall and tosses it to you.

    “Make sure you’re back in time for dinner,” she says, then goes back to her call.

    In the olden days, we called this display of nimble gymnastics “being a mom
    Nowadays we call it “multitasking.”

    From self-help books to late-night infomercials to business productivity seminars,
    America is being told to multitask. We are forever reminded that, because we live in
    an age of globalization and a 24-hour news cycle, the only real time zone that exists
    is “all the time.” To that end, in order to succeed we must constantly keep a half-
    dozen balls in the air, tending to our jobs, homes, wives, kids, parents, in-laws,
    sports teams, reality shows, automobiles, mortgage payments and the occasional
    bid on eBay—and all at the same time.

    In other words, we must multitask like there’s no tomorrow. Not since “synergy,” has
    a word so audaciously invaded the cultural discourse. Even “outside of the box” is
    getting jealous.

    Of course, multitasking does have its share of detractors. A recent article in the Los
    Angeles Times revealed that scientists believe the true multitaskers among us
    those who surf the net while sleeping, or pluck their eyebrows while making
    waffles—are actually slowly killing themselves, or at the very least, becoming dumb.
    That’sright--multitasking makes us goofy.

    Citing the work of University of Michigan cognitive neuroscientist David E. Meyer,
    the article reveals that the human body produces chemicals that compensate for
    tension (the multitasker’s middle name), but in the process, also damage brain
    tissue. Sooner or later, says Meyer, the hippocampus gets targeted (there goes
    your long-term memory) as well as prefrontal cortex, which helps us solve problems
    and make plans (ah, well, you didn’t want to take that vacation to Miami anyway, did

    But as much as I’d like to believe the scientists are onto something, I’m not giving
    up on multitasking just yet—at least until it’s proven to be just a fad. And I come
    from the school in which a fad isn’t a fad until: 1) my mother starts doing it, 2) a
    major sports star goes into rehab for overdoing it; and 3) Oprah tells me to *stop*
    doing it. (Oprah, by the way, is the Joan of Arc of multitaskers.)

    Therefore, until the Surgeon General stamps a tattooed warning on the rumps of all
    overworked, overwrought Americans everywhere, I’m going to think outside the box,
    synergize my energies, and propose the following ideas to the multitasking
    multitudes currently sweeping the nation (while sweeping the floor): Here’s the perfect website for those who like to shop online,
    cruise chat rooms, download MP3s, upload pictures of their schnauzer, and install
    the latest Halle Berry screen saverand all in one session at the PC. Membership
    to the online service comes complete with complimentary hardware, including a
    double-headed mouse and three-tiered keyboard, along with a free subscription to
    the Christian Science Monitor, which e-multitaskers can read while waiting for their
    computers to reboot.

    Multitask Me Elmo! Busy Moms and Dads will swell with pride when they see their
    little ones cuddled up with Sesame Street’s favorite fuzzy red mascot, now marketed
    as the first multitasking-talking toy to hit the market. Rather than giggle and squeal
    “Ooh, that Tickles” like his unproductive predecessor, Multitask-Me-Elmo’s voice is
    triggered by a special sensor that detects whenever your wee one is idle. Among
    the plush toy’s most darling commands: “Move it! Move it!” “But you took one nap
    already today!” and “That doggie looks like a mongoose. Draw another one!

    Who Wants to Be a Multitasker?: In this dazzling new game show from Fox,
    contestants are asked to perform a variety of complex tasks simultaneously until
    they drop, including balancing their checkbooks, reciting their spouse’s birthday,
    making a salad nicoise (without canned tuna), doing the Jumble, naming all six
    friends on Friends and setting the clock on a VCR. The first show ends in a
    deadlock, which is then dramatically broken by Greg Steele, a business executive
    from Baltimore, who performs one task unfamiliar to the rest of the contestants. He
    makes his own travel arrangements.

    Chicken Soup for the Multitasker: An instant best-seller, this indispensable
    handbook lists 1001 catchy platitudes that inveterate multitaskers can repeat over
    and over whenever anyone tells them to slow down. Included: “I can handle it,” “This’
    ll just take a minute,” and “Well, if I don’t do it, who will?” (Be sure to look for the
    follow-up book, which is niche-marketed for the busy pregnant mom: What to
    Expect When You’re Multitasking.)

    Multitask! The Musical! In what many consider to be the capstone of his already
    sparkling career, Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber writes a five-hour musical retrospective
    of his most memorable rock operas. Subtitled, Evita and the Technicolor Cats of the
    Opera Superstar!, the show features Webber himself in the lead role, as well as all
    supporting roles, orchestra conductor, usher and lobby snack vendor. The
    multitasking comes to an abrupt stop, however, when newspapers refuse to run
    Webber’s own review of the show, in which he calls it “Landmark Theater!”