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Robyn Okrant Headshot

Multitasking and the Modern Woman

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When I was in the fifth grade, my Language Arts teacher said he'd give extra credit to whichever student could pat her head and rub her belly simultaneously for the longest time. (I went to public school.) He lined us up, said ready set go, and most of my classmates broke into gales of giggles at the impossibility of the task. I, on the other hand, took it as my mission to win. I imagined impressing Mr. G so much that he'd sweep me off my feet and fly me on his unicorn into the pages of A Wrinkle in Time to propose marriage. And I knew if I won, the rest of the kids would finally see how cool I really was. And I was awesome. Victorious, I was awarded the extra credit. But instead of being held aloft by my cheering fellow grade schoolers, I was awarded the hormone-fueled scorn of a roomful of 'tweens. No matter, I had discovered a talent: I could do two things at once and be a winner... but why stop at two?

Cut to 28 years later: I keep so many balls in the air at the same time, I barely have time to blink. And I'm not alone, most women I know are multitasking fiends. Until about five years ago we wore this distinction like the Medal on Honor. With pride we'd say, "Women are so much better at multitasking than men." And then the University of London came out with a study that said multitasking (especially media-based or electronic multitasking) makes our IQ drop by 10 points... that's double the amount lost by smoking marijuana. So, adding Facebook friends and returning phone calls while baking gluten-free muffins makes me dumber than I was in college smoking pot and watching Aliens for the 30th time.

I recently confided to a friend: "I wish I could download apps directly to my brain. Then I wouldn't even have to turn on my phone." She threw her head back and laughed and then I pretended to laugh as if I'd made a joke, but in my mind I deleted her from my contacts list.

I can't turn my laptop off during the day and I can't turn my brain off at night. My mind jumps from one thought to the next, moving a mile a minute. If Descartes' classic quote from Discourse on Method is correct ("I think, therefore I am") than I really, really am.

In the past month, three separate medical professionals have encouraged me to start taking sleeping pills. Why fix the underlying issue of my sleep troubles when we can slap a pharmaceutical band-aid on it instead? In 2007, Americans spent over three billion dollars on prescription sleep aids -- it's projected that the industry will jump to five billion by the end of 2010. We have lost our off switch.

I don't want to take a sleeping pill. I want to become willing to do one thing at a time. But all that emotional work seems really time consuming, so I search for a loophole (all the while Tweeting my progress). I run into the warm and welcoming arms of one of the top selling women's magazines in the country: Real Simple. It sounds so friendly. So helpful. Dear Real Simple: How can I make my life easier? How can I save time? How can I petition congress to add another hour to the day? Real Simple has the all answers: No time to frost your cupcakes? Melt a marshmallow on top of them instead. Too busy to work out? Think again -- here's a routine to tighten flabby abs in just 15-minutes a day! By time I've finished the magazine, I've spent $100 online at the Container Store (for helpful storage solutions to streamline my day), and now I have to make cupcakes.

It seems it takes time to save time. Our minds are cluttered with responsibilities, anxieties, self-judgment, and our homes are cluttered with electronic gadgets and books on how to organize.

I came to my senses and took the following book out of my wish list at Amazon.com: How to Organize (Just About) Everything: More Than 500 Step-by-Step Instructions for Everything from Organizing Your Closets to Planning a Wedding to Creating a Flawless Filing System. I'm not going to promise I'll never download it to my Kindle, but for today I can say no.

Today I can admit that my fascination with the Hindu deity Kali is not solely based on the fact that she is female and the Goddess of Time and eternal energy...but also that she has 10 arms and I can't help but imagine how much more I'd get done around the house with extra extremities.

And while I spin like a Tasmanian devil to get everything done quickly, working on dozens of items concurrently rather than focus on one, the truth is I'm inefficient. In an article called "Human Perception and Performance" in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, it states that a 20-30 percent of our time is lost when trying to switch our attention from one project to the next. Some studies say that electronic-multitasking costs the American economy $650 billion dollars a year and that our productivity drops by 40 percent. With the state of international financial affairs as they are, something tells me the Chinese aren't worried about how many sheep they've acquired in Farmville.

My attention span has grown shorter and I'm not even comfortable in my own home unless something is on and glowing and making noise. Once a year, I find it necessary to my sanity to escape to a yoga retreat in the mountains where there is no TV and I am challenged to be in a moment without filling it up. Although last year, between yoga classes, I did find a condo I liked on my iPhone and my husband and I purchased it on our return to civilization. But other than that, I was totally at peace.

And I should come clean with you: while I was writing this piece, I also scheduled a delivery on Peapod, watched two episodes of Mad Men, tried on new jeans for my husband, returned emails, did lunges, planned dinner, made a date with a girlfriend for coffee, folded clothes, plucked a distracting hair from my chin, researched how I might start a raw diet, ordered shoes from Zappos for my latin dance class, and made a to-do list (number one on the list: finish writing essay about multitasking). I do realize that had I concentrated solely on writing this article, it might have been 40 percent better. And for that, I humbly apologize.

And while I wish I could sign off by telling you that I will commit myself to honing my focus, accepting that it's only possible for a human brain to attend to one task at a time, that wouldn't be honest. I might be an anxious, over-scheduled, sleep-deprived wreck, but I am not a liar. And I do find some redeeming qualities in my chosen lifestyle. For instance, none of you should ever feel as if you've been put on the back burner with me -- because you're all sharing the same 60 percent of my attention.

Instead of self-castigation while multitasking, I seek to discover a meditative state while ensconced in it. Maybe I can see my to-do list like a juggler sees his flaming chainsaws as he flings them into the air. To everyone else, my lifestyle might seem dangerous, fraught with the possibility of hurting myself or others, but I want to immerse myself in the rhythm and flow. I want to be a pioneer in Zen and the Art of Multitasking.

And if I fail? I can always hire a life coach. I just hope he can walk and chew gum at the same time.

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