The Myth of Multitasking

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Ralph Maltese

The Myth of MultiTasking

This is not an old fogie article.  True, I am an old fogie, but this is not an old fogie article.  In my high school class a few years ago, I was trying to impress upon my students the enormous accomplishment of the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery Expedition.  “The Apollo mission to the moon was a monumental testimony to the human capacity for collaboration and problem-solving, but the astronauts were only out of contact with their support team for 14 minutes (I made up a number, but I thought it was pretty short).  Lewis and Clark were incommunicado with Jefferson for almost two years!  No one knew in that whole time how they were doing.”

One wise guy in the back of the room said aloud, “Did they forget to charge their cell phones?”  Mild laughter.  This facetious comment led me down one of those teaching avenues of discovery.  I asked, “How many of you can imagine a life without a cell phone?”  Of course, no one raised a hand.  So we talked about that for a while.  I do not have to imagine a life without a cell phone.  I lived most of my 64+ years without one and seemed to do okay.  I actually have a cell phone that I like very much…it has a nice GPS and other Apps; I find it useful to contact my children just before we go to visit them or if we get lost trying to visit them.  Waiting in the doctor’s outer office, I enjoy playing one of the games on my cell phone, especially when the only reading material available is Yachting Monthly.  But there are whole days that go by without my starting up my cell phone.  I would find it difficult to imagine my suburban life without my automobile, or my wireless computer system.  I am currently very spoiled by my Tivo, and can hardly envision not watching a favorite program whenever I want to.  Cell phones, I do not miss so much.

This is not a rant against cell phones.  I think cell phones are terrific.  What is interesting to me is how so many humans, feeling the need to be connected to the rest of the world on a second to second basis, will alter the human race.  One of my sons-in-law, visiting with my daughter during the holidays, was watching a movie with us…a family holiday favorite which he had never seen before.  As we watched, I noticed that every five minutes or so, he would look down at his left hand.  He was following the scoreboard of one of his favorite teams.  We could be at a family dinner—a holiday family dinner—and one of my children’s cell phones would ring.  One of the downsides I believe to being connected to the rest of the world on a second to second basis is that we are connected to the rest of the world on a second to second basis.  My kids’ employers do not care that we are sitting down to dinner—in fact, the employer might be calling from an area of the world in which dinner was long over.  Or that the date of his call is a national holiday.

My wife gave me a certificate to purchase a cell phone.  We went to the cell phone dealer where I was greeted by a very young salesperson whose high voice reminded me of the Simpson’s teenager working in the fast food restaurant.  “Yessir, may I help you?”

“My wife gave me a gift certificate to purchase a cell phone, but I am not certain I need one.”

I could see in the young man’s face his intense drawing upon his salesmanship.  “Sir, what do you do?  What’s your job?”

“I am an educator.  I teach high school.”

“Oh yeah?  Where?”

I gave him the name of my high school.

“Gee, I think we used to play them in basketball.  What do you like doing?”

He read the puzzlement in my face.

“I mean, what is your hobby?”

I shrugged my shoulders.  “I really like to go fly fishing.”

My adolescent salesman suddenly unfolded like a fast blossoming tulip.  “Ah, well there it is.  You need a cell phone.  Suppose you are on a mountain stream, fly fishing, and your principal wants to call you about something at work?”

My wife turned her back to us both, hiding her smile.  Not exactly a great selling point.

I did buy the phone, and I even upgraded that one.  I like my cell phone.

What I am not so convinced of is this notion of multi-tasking.  The prevailing concept is that today’s young people are so wired that they can multi-task.  I have witnessed this concept numerous times when I have presented at educator’s workshops.  I or a colleague is in the front of the room, clicker in hand, walking the audience through the presentation on the screen.  As a teacher I constantly scanned my classroom to see who was following along or who looked confused or who was writing notes to her vbf or bf or whatever other paired consonants they chose.  As a presenter, I see the faces of most of my audience lit by the glow of a laptop screen.  I am working my  heart out trying to explain an important and convoluted procedure and most of my “listeners” are online, checking email, texting, back channeling or shopping.  Their faces are also lit by a side glow emanating from their open cell phone.   If you ask them about this dynamic, the answer is usually the same.  “I can multi task. I was listening.”

I wonder about that.  Sometimes I am in the audience, and whenever I sit next to someone who is multi-tasking, every five minutes that someone is poking me in the side asking me what the presenter just said or asks “What did I miss?”

I admit that there are occasions when I am the one sitting in front of a laptop, and a presenter who does not know how to weave a story or how to alter his monotone even slightly or who does not know enough not to treat the obvious as supernatural inspires me to check my email or rework some document or do some online banking.  And if the online task is engaging, necessitating my focus, I completely lose track of what the presenter is presenting.  Then the fear that the presenter will call on me for confirmation or support spreads like cold sweat over my whole body.

Young people, especially, defend the concept of multitasking.  “I’m always texting, emailing, communicating with a number of friends and co-workers every day.”

I think this is an appropriate time to do some bragging.  Please hold your applause till the end of this paragraph.  Drum roll….in third grade, my teacher acknowledged me as the fastest reader in her class.  She actually brought me to the front of the class, turned me around to face my classmates, and announced that I had actually surpassed the 400 words per minute speed.  No one, according to Ms. Poderecki, had ever topped the 400 barrier.  Beaming, I felt like an Olympic miler.  This recognition encouraged me to bring home even more books weekly from the school library. By the end of the year I had raced through all the biographies of famous people…Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Annie Oakley, Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickock.  By the end of the year I was tackling even the more difficult biographies…those of people who did not tote a firearm and were known more for their words than their deeds.  John Adams, Socrates, Winston Churchill. When fourth grade came along, I was recognized as the faster reader in P.S. 28, and I could twirl a book as impressively as Wyatt Earp could spin a Colt .45.  Oddly enough, this recognition did not attract any classmates of the female gender.

My reputation followed me into junior high and high school, and then the unexpected happened.  As part of an assignment, I picked up a chemistry book.  I do not know what my reading speed was while studying that book, but I know it was not 400 words per minute.  I do remember one night around 8 PM, reading the first sentence of the chapter on valences.  And I remember that same night, around 9 PM, rereading the first sentence of the chapter on valences.

I am certain that my much younger educational colleagues can multitask…that they can text their friends about a Facebook comment, and email a response from a boss about a meeting, or construct a workable calendar of events.  I am suspicious of the possibility that they can solve a math problem involving their finances, follow an online technician as he explains how to retrieve the contents of their hard drive and all the time comprehend the text and subtext of Hamlet. In short, there is multitasking and there is multitasking.  In fact, I will argue that there are times I do not want to multitask nor do I want the people I am involved with to multitask.  I do not want my dentist to simultaneously learn how to replace a vacuum cleaner belt, rehearse an aria from Turandot, study a T.S. Eliot poem, and replace one of my crowns.

I know it is a losing battle trying to convince people that multitasking is only possible for minor tasks.  Or trying to convince people that attempting to multitask is sometimes dangerous as in simultaneously texting friends, checking email, maintaining a conference call and navigating one’s car through the streets of Boston.

No, I believe the myth of multitasking has become part of our cultural DNA,  much as the myth that all the players on the New York Yankees are mercenary while the players in other cities play their hardest for the glory and love of the hometown folks.  So I have eliminated the task of dispelling the myth of multitasking from my to-do list.

However, I am still interested in how this is all going to play out, human nature-wise.  I often engaged my students in group projects, what we now label as “project based learning.”  As each group made its presentation, I would hold everyone else in class to an ethic.  Understandably, while group A was doing its thing in front of the class, students in other groups would be mentally rehearsing, rereading script, etc. in nervous preparation for their stint.  When I noticed a student or a group of students so engaged, I would stop everything and caution them (and the rest of the class) to “Pay attention to the group presenting.  This is the courteous thing to do.  You want them to pay attention to your presentation.”  In later years I would get some push back, invariably from a student who was reading the text on his cell phone.  “Mr. Maltese, I was listening!”  My response would be “It is not enough to listen.  The polite thing to do is to show the person who is presenting that you are listening.  Imagine if you came to me while I was sitting behind my desk and asked, ‘Mr. M.  I have this huge problem and it is very sensitive.  It took me a while to get the courage to ask you.  Could you help me?’ And I say, ‘Yes,’ and proceed to put my head on my desk and close my eyes.  You say, ‘Mr. M.  This is important to me.’ And I mumble, ‘I am listening.’”

A report came out a few years ago from, I believe, some neuroscientists who claimed that the brains of most adolescents had not yet developed the facility to read faces…to discern what the speaker really meant.  I have suspected as much.  While teaching I noticed that quite a few of even my brightest students could not read the sarcasm or irony in my face that most adults would pick up.

I wonder if, focusing on the phones in the palms of our hands rather than the people standing in front of us, we, even as adults, will lose the ability to read faces.

I wonder if the polite act of showing people we are listening to them will also fade.  In fact, we might become a human race that simply expects others to NOT be listening to us.  We will evolve to that point where face to face communication becomes a rarity, our whole connectedness as a species totally dependent on electronic devices.  I wonder if we will “evolve” to the point where everyone’s left hand will be replaced with a cell phone, or, better yet, an electronic chip duplicating all of a cell phone’s capability is routinely implanted in a baby at birth.  Perhaps time and space will become meaningless.  Showing people you are listening will disappear as a social grace.  The implied message is “What we are multitasking is more important than what you are sharing…even if it isn’t.” We often don’t listen to the movies we pay to attend, instead texting (or worse, talking on the phone) in the dark.  Why focus on the person in front of you when you could be conversing with someone else in the palm of your hand?

People’s entire visages may disappear.  It has become much more common to walk down the aisle of a supermarket and hear a conversation only to notice that there is only one other person in the aisle with you and she is talking to, I imagine, the cereal boxes until I notice the blue tooth in her ear.

I was showering at my work out center one morning, and, as I toweled off, a maintenance man entered the room and stood in front of a urinal, unzipped, and began emptying his bladder.  During this entire event, he conducted a conversation with, as it turns out, his boss.  As he finished, both the conversation and the emptying of his bladder, he walked to the sink, saw me for the first time, and sheepishly said, “Funny. Nowadays people never know where you are when you’re talking.”  Multitasking.

At least he said it “sheepishly.”  I doubt that, in the future, people will be embarrassed by the contexts of their conversations.  Nor will they be ashamed to not be listening.


Last Updated on Wednesday, 08 December 2010 01:06



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