Thursday, October 23, 2008

Generation M--what would Abraham Lincoln say?

So I was driving to work the other day, listening to NPR while checking voice mail on my handheld cell phone and eating a banana with a glass of OJ balanced on my thigh (and driving, remember) when I heard a story about Generation M. The M in this case was for multitasking. The story was about teenagers who do online research for their homework while listening to music on their iPods, surfing around on Facebook, and instant messaging up in the corner of the screen with a couple of friends. I pictured the kids in this story like those computer-game-addicted adolescents I see everywhere these days and thought to myself: "I am not going to let my kids do that." And then I looked down, noticed the steering wheel, the banana, the OJ, the cell phone, the radio, and the patient chart I was about to open on the passenger seat so that I could return a phone call from a referring physician during my drive...oh no, I am ONE OF THEM! My fruit and juice and cell phone are the low-tech, old-fashioned version of Generation M, Generation M for the not-quite-middle-aged.

I have to say that I love multitasking. On the one hand, I resent being so busy that I have to do 4 things at once to have any chance of getting a solid night's sleep. Kind of. The truth is, though, that I love that feeling of productivity, knocking 5 items off my To Do List simultaneously during my commute, getting a day's worth of errands done in one big sweeping geographic circle with no backtracking and no dead time. I might even be addicted to it. I suspect that many physicians share this perverse enjoyment of multitasking, and if it wasn't in their blood when they started med school, it certainly has been beaten into them by the time they finish their internship. Add to that parenting as a physician (or maybe parenting period), and it's easy to see how multitasking gets reinforced in all of us. We multitask, we get rewarded, we multitask more, we get rewarded more.

So, I'm not the only one addicted to multitasking and thinking about it. NPR apparently can't get enough of it, either. They have had 3 stories about it in the month of October. And they are alarming. One segment reported that multitasking on a cell phone while driving reduced reaction time and driver attention to a degree similar to driving while intoxicated. Another talked about the results of functional brain imaging showing that we really don't multitask even if we think we do. We just switch quickly from one task or thought to another and back. But, in so doing, we really cause a kind of "brown out" in our brains. The electricity doesn't go out entirely, but it dims noticeably, enough to be an irritation to those in the environment. In one experiment, a highly accomplished professional musician was noted to make several mistakes while playing familiar pieces of music if asked to perform simple mathematical calculations in his head simultaneously. There were several other experiments, all with similar results.

Once I began paying attention, I realized that it was true; I really wasn't keeping all the balls in the air, as I thought. I was remembering to gather up the overdue library books and a shirt to return to the mall as I dashed out the door to my physical therapy appointment, which is on the same road as the library and the mall, but I was leaving the house without my car keys, then my wallet, then the library books, then the receipt, rushing back to the front door over and over. I was dealing breakfast dishes onto the table like cards in Vegas and unloading the dishwasher and throwing the laundry into the dryer and packing up my breast pump and absentmindedly putting a halt to the sibling bickering at the table, but I wasn't really listening to the kids or even noticing anything around me. I was missing a golden 10 minutes of making a real connection with my kids in the morning, hearing them say something goofy or precocious that would bring me joy repeatedly over the course of a long workday, or (God forbid!) eating breakfast while not in a vehicle. I had come up with creative questions for patients whose answers would provide multiple essential bits of history and also serve as ice-breakers or social chit-chat, but I wasn't really engaged in the process. I was missing the body language and the pauses. I was always one step ahead, trying to pick up a few minutes here or there because I was so overcommitted. I was being a mechanic, diagnosing and fixing a problem, instead of a doctor.

So, what's the message here, and where is Abe Lincoln going to come into the picture since this post is nearing its end? I haven't stopped multitasking. Sometimes I have to do it. Sometimes we all do. But I have stopped multitasking without thinking about it, and I've realized that we really don't have to do it all of the time to get by. In order to stop multitasking 24/7, I have also had to stop saying yes to everything and everyone, including myself. I just acknowledged that I couldn't do it all anymore--it's too much with 3 kids and 2 physicians in our family of 5--took a deep breath and felt relieved. And so, as Abe said: You can please all of the people some of the time, and you can please some of the people all of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time. Amen!


  1. I heard that same story about the cell phones. I was eating a yogurt with a spoon while driving and listening to the pianist do math problems to demonstrate how the brain can't do "automatic" things when distracted.

    Know what I think is more dangerous than cell phones? Eating while driving. I wonder if anyone has studied this?

    I wonder how many accidents are caused by balancing orange juice between the thighs. I wonder when I'm going to kill someone because my peripheral vision is occluded by a Big Mac.

    Welcome to MiM, Tempeh!

  2. I'm hooked on it too - plus you get that positive reinforcement ("I don't know how you do it all!")
    But I do realize now that that's why my husband is always complaining that I don't listen to what he's saying (true because half the time I'm thinking or doing all the other things that need to get done)


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