Single-tasking works, until we forget

Writer’s Block

A few weeks ago, my wife and I were watching the DVD of “Titanic,” when she suddenly – WAIT A MINUTE! That was the beginning of my column last week in this paper. I forgot where I was going with this week’s column.

That sort of thing seems to be happening to me a lot lately – forgetting where I’m going. People of a certain age know the phenomenon. It can happen like this:

You’re watching a local TV newscast. Just as Jesse Jones is about to sting an unscrupulous auto mechanic, a commercial break comes on. You leap to your feet and run down the hall to grab something from the garage. But then, when you arrive in the garage, you just stand there. You can’t remember what you were in such a hurry to go get.

Then you think that maybe you went there to make a sandwich, even though there is no luncheon meat in the garage. So you walk to the kitchen instead – but on the way, the phone rings. It’s a friend calling.

“Hey, where were you today?” asks the friend. “I waited for you over an hour.”

“Was that today?” you reply. “Sorry, man. I just spaced it.”

We all do it. I mean, don’t we? And I think it’s happening more and more because of the increasingly busy world we live in – with multiple tasks and distractions forming a perfect storm. I submit that

it’s all caused by multitasking.

It makes us forget exactly where we parked our car just a day earlier at Sea-Tac airport. And sometimes, WHY we parked there in the first place.

Or it makes someone momentarily go blank on remembering his or her ZIP code, phone number or personal identification number. I am especially likely to forget my PIN when there is a line of people standing behind me at the cash machine.

I believe these lapses happen more nowadays that ever before in human history. We’ve got just too much to remember, too much to think about, too much to do – and so, even more to forget. At least that’s what I tell myself.

But the fact is, I’ve been this way all my life, long before I had much of a schedule at all.

When I was a kid, my mom came home one day with a bag of groceries.

“Here,” she said handing me a frozen rump roast. “Take this to the freezer for me.”

Our freezer was located in the basement of our house, but by the time I arrived there, pot roast in hand, my mission got lost. I became distracted by my dad’s workbench area and started fooling around with some of his tools. I quickly forgot why I had gone down to the basement in the first place.

Almost three weeks later, my dad went downstairs to grab a hammer. He immediately noticed a powerful odor – the kind that prompts people to say, “Hey, what died?” The smell was emanating from the tool chest.

Dad opened the lid. There inside, was a good old-fashioned maggot farm that was formerly a rump roast.

Later, Dad found his hammer. In the freezer.

When a kid does stuff like that, adults just shrug it off as typical of the wandering mind of a youngster. But when we get older, we worry that we may be “losing it.” Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as “misplacing the rump roast.”

But according to the Journal of Experimental Psychology, it turns out that such behavior is actually pretty normal for people of all ages. According to the study, and I’m paraphrasing: “multitasking is a big, fat waste of time.”

In fact, in some cases, so-called multitasking adds 50 percent to the time required to perform various chores.

In other words, it’s like trying to deal with a hammer and a rump roast at the same time. Chances are that neither task will be accomplished very well, if at all. True, there are some people such as circus jugglers that can keep several objects going all at once. But even a juggler doesn’t also simultaneously try to tame lions and get shot out of a cannon.

So I’m going to try a home experiment in “single” tasking. Next time I sit down to watch a game on TV, I’m going to dismiss my wife if she asks me to wash the dishes or sort my socks at the same time. I’ll simply explain to her how inefficient that would be. I’m not sure how she’ll react to my experiment, but if you don’t see my column here for a few weeks, you should ask the police to come to my house.

And tell them to look in the freezer.

Pat Cashman is a writer, actor and public speaker. He can be reached at pat@patcashman.com.