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Photo by N. Duran Photography
Reflection by Jim Crissman

There is an old Robin Williams routine where he plays then-President Ronald Reagan wearing a teleprompter in his ear that is feeding him lines for the speech he is giving. The teleprompter malfunctions and picks up stray radio signals, feeding into Mr. Reagan’s ear one station after another, from the whispering tones of classical music DJs, to rap artists, to radio preachers—maybe a dozen in all—that then spill out of the old man’s mouth in rapid succession. With its many layered impressions, it is genius comedy. But I suspect many of us feel a little like old Ronnie as we’re yanked this way and that in this multitasking world. As I adjust to life as a consultant, which for me does not mean retired or even semi-retired as some have thought, I find I need my lists and calendars more than I ever did when I marched off to the same office every day. I sometimes feel like the general who jumped on his horse and rode off in all directions, to steal a favorite line from my Dad.

Research at the University of Michigan a few years ago, and a number of lay articles in its wake, described the time lost while switching tasks, as the brain’s “executive control” processes are forced to reorient. And of course there is a measurable loss of performance when tasks are done simultaneously. The harried parent talking on the cell, driving, and controlling young children at the same time is a clear menace. That really scares me as a bicyclist. Luckily for me, there are tasks that I can do very well together: watching TV and drinking beer for instance. I can even pet the cat while I do both of these things. That’s three things at once! Executive material, don’t you think? I’ll expect an upswing in recruiter calls following revelation of this talent.

But when I have the luxury to focus on a single task for hours at a time, I get real pleasure from going deep, and I’m reluctant to switch—of course that includes sleep. But at the moment I’m loving my work the most, it can become procrastination. I can be at my most productive and feel guilty about what I’m not doing at the same time! Unfortunately, doing everything at once might make us feel better about ourselves, but it doesn’t make us more productive. For example, while in vet school I once ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with my right hand while I did a rectal exam in a cow with my left. As I recall, the sandwich was pregnant and the cow wasn’t very good.

© James W. Crissman, 2011