Monday, June 11, 2007

Gender and Multi-Tasking

It has come to my attention lately that while I often juggle several tasks at one time, my partner is often deeply focused on one task.

Case in point: Yesterday my partner was engrossed in reading a comic book in the living room. He wasn't aware of the music I turned on the stereo or the cats that skittered past his feet. He was in his own comic-book universe. I, on the other hand, found myself boiling some water for tea, chasing the cats, thinking about an email I had to send, adding a massage appointment in my calendar and dancing a little jig to the music I had just turned on. I was a whirling dervish of multiple tasks and he was a laser beam of focus.

Now personality could account for this difference for sure. I know men who mutli-task and women who are mono-taskers, but I do wonder how much gender plays a role in our ability to multi-task. Do women multi-task more than men? I've read many articles highlighting such differences. Is this difference a product of evolutionary biology? Are women still gathering those various nuts and berries while attending to their children and men are still hunting that one antelope with the hope of producing the evening meal?

And more importantly, does women's ability to multi-task negatively affect our stress levels, or does this octopus-arm life make us more resilient and better able to deal with the stressors in our lives?

What do you think? What is your experience?


Anonymous said...

There are studies that suggest male brains are more compartmentalized: they don’t traipse as easily from one thought process to another and back again (and act on them) or concurrently juggle multiple trains of thoughts (and concomitant actions) as easily as female brains. If true, that could be (as you suggest) an evolutionary by-product of the female role as constant child tender always overlaid onto other activities of daily existence: she can’t just be foraging or preparing food or being alert to dangerous predators, or attending to the males…she always has to be attending to the offspring on top of all else she is doing at the time. Multi-tasking.
My anecdotal experience has been that men do tend to be singularly focused on one-thought/activity at a time. Hunt wild boar/watch baseball game on TV/read book/write letter. Ask them a question off subject and you get a) long pause, then, b) huh? What did you say? , then c) I don’t know.
Yet in talking to my sister recently (a professional working mom with three children), she mentioned that she is the mentally compartmentalized one, and it is her husband Dan who thinks and acts within many boxes at once. Go figure.
I was always a multi-thinker/tasker, but recently have found it distracting. That’s either a breakdown in my mental agility as I age, or an approachment of a Zen focus on being in the moment and taking one thing (like each breath) as it comes. I prefer to think the latter!
Focusing in on one thing at a time reduces my stress level and I believe that in so doing it actually increases my effectiveness.

Anonymous said...

Oh, that was me, Diane

Courtney Putnam said...

Very interesting, Diane. Thanks for your thoughts on this. I am finding, too, that I prefer to be more mindful about one task at a time. Multi-tasking, while I can do it and do it well, takes its toll on me.

I went to grad school with a man (the lovely Leo Love, rest in peace) who practiced some Sufi approaches to life, which included only doing one task at a time. If he ate dinner, he just ate dinner (he didn't talk and eat or watch TV and eat or read a book and eat). He just focused on the food and the experience of eating. This also caused him to appreciate his meal more fully and to eat more slowly.

Once I tried an exercise of just eating a strawberry (I think I got this idea from Gayle Bradeis book _Fruitflesh_). I was present with just the strawberry and the way it tasted in my mouth before entering my body. It was a lesson in patience and in letting go of the pulling and tugging of other aspects of my life. Just me and the strawberry existed. It was quite lovely.

I also notice that multi-tasking causes me to forget to breathe very well. I hold my breath in as a try to juggle 10 things at once.


Yojimbo_5 said...

Well, I can go with the compartmentalization thing.

But as one who

1) drives while listening to the radio/talking on the phone (with a hands-free set, of course)


2)whose work involves multi-tasking with a computer-editing/composing/timing/creating, while simultaneously entertaining the client breathing down my neck.

3) tending to the needy(the dog) while also getting house-chores taken care of,

I'm not so sure I buy the non-multi-tasking argument.

And, for another example: How many guys do you know who read in the bathroom?

Courtney Putnam said...

Indeed, Jim. You describe quite the multi-tasking feats! I'm impressed!