I am no good at multitasking, that elusive art form of competently doing more than one thing at a time.
Even the word “multitasking” does double duty. Two words, “multi” and “task” are crammed together into one word in pursuit of efficiency. That’s a hard act to follow if you’re striving for increased productivity.
The concept of multitasking was not a thing during my formative years. The word did not exist. I checked my high school graduation gift, the 1980 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary—no entry for “multitasking.” Those were simpler days, when two definitive tests would determine if you were skilled at doing two things at once. First: could you walk down the street and chew gum at the same time? Second: could you rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time? Anyone adept at both of these skills would win the “Most Likely to be Coordinated” award in high school. It wasn’t something we would put on our resumés, though. You wouldn’t see in the Skills section, “Typing at 45 words per minute. Fluency in Esperanto. Prowess in walking down the street and chewing gum at the same time.” We did not have the language to discuss mastery of this important skill.
Since it wasn’t a virtue when I was growing up, I struggle with multitasking to this day. I’m the person who has to turn off the car radio when I’m backing up, so I won’t be distracted and lose the ability to properly operate my vehicle when a Taylor Swift song comes on. If I’m listening to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” while writing on the computer, I might type “Mama, I killed a man” without even knowing it, leading to a plot twist in my cozy mystery manuscript. If I’m trying to cook and wash the dishes at the same time, the kitchen sponge might end up in the refrigerator and the spaghetti sauce might taste suspiciously like dish soap. Better for me to stick to one thing at a time!
Even before the word entered the dictionary, parents understood the concept of multitasking. They say babies don’t come with an instruction manual, but if they did, the first chapter would lay out the guidelines for parental multitasking. Rule number one: don’t fret about quality.
Parents of a fussy baby learn to do all their normal tasks with one hand, while hefting their inconsolable child with the other. The mounds of tiny outfits coming out of the laundry several times a day will eventually get folded using only one hand, although the result is unlikely to pass muster with grandma.
When the kids are school-aged, parental multitasking ramps up with the increased activities of the children. Parents often use the word “juggling” to describe the myriad tasks that come with this stage of life. When I tried to learn to juggle once, I discovered that at least one ball had to be up in the air at any given moment to make the process work correctly, and the tiniest miscalculation sends all the balls crashing to the ground. What more can I say?
When the kids get older, parents find multitasking useful when they need to spy on their teenagers. They can’t be caught lurking in front of the closed bedroom door, ear to keyhole like the British butler of yore. But a pile of towels on its way to the hall linen closet renders the parent above suspicion. Kids might wonder why the towels need to be washed so frequently, or why the pictures hanging in the hall outside their doors get dusted every day when the rest of the house remains untouched, but they know that the ways of parents are unfathomable. Let the parent beware, however—you never know what you might overhear. Today, I caught this snippet: “Very possibly. I’ve got a grenade, so it doesn’t really matter.” Even the ancient butler listening through the keyhole would be hard pressed to make sense of this one. Luckily, the sound of laughter accompanied by frenzied typing tipped me off that I was spying on nothing more sinister than a video game.
Whether you’re trying to spy on your teens or drive a car while listening to the radio, I wish you success in your attempts at multitasking. When all else fails, just remember that the opposite of multitasking is focusing—also a talking point on a winning resumé.
• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother, and author who writes cozy mysteries under the pen name “Greta McKennan.” She likes to look at the bright side of life.