Is it even really possible?

Story by Rick Snyder, Ph.D.

How often have you heard people brag that they’re multitasking? Or how often do you purport that you are exceptionally skilled at multitasking?

It’s very common for people to watch TV and fiddle around on their smart phone at the same time. The all-consuming social media apps – Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and so many others – pull on us and demand our attention, regardless of what else we are trying to do.

I can admit it’s not just social media. Many times while I am on the phone with a client, I’ll quickly Google the topic of the question for quick, accurate answers. Not that I do this all the time, but it sure comes in handy for certain kinds of questions. Questions such as: Where can I find this variety of that vegetable? Who can I contact in my state (not a Mississippi caller) to help me with my horticultural question? What extension publication can I look at to learn more about a certain topic? All of these questions merit multitasking by finding answers on the internet at the same time I’m carrying on a conversation on the phone.

However, I have noticed something. If I read a little on those websites, I tend to miss some of the conversation on the phone. Sometimes I have to ask somebody to repeat something. So, was I really multitasking or not?

Think about it. OK, stop doing things on your cell phone for a minute while you read this. Have you ever watched a movie or program on TV while also using your phone, and then noticed that you missed something important in the plot? Have you observed yourself “not hearing” what somebody said while you were looking at your phone?

This is because multitasking has to be a myth. It’s possible for us to switch quickly back and forth between two or more tasks. This gives us the impression that we are multitasking. But are we? I don’t think so.

Consider a chef in a restaurant. A chef has to perform and keep track of many individual jobs very efficiently. However, he’s actually switching from one menu item to the next, very quickly of course, and then on to the next one. A chef’s job is like conducting a symphony of food preparation by learning how to prioritize each second and switching attention to that item.

Earl Miller, a professor neuroscience at MIT, says that we cannot focus on more than one thing at a time. However, we can change our attention at amazing speed. So when you pay attention to one thing, you are really ignoring everything else.

Gardening is also good example. Suppose you have to mow, pull weeds, plant seeds, harvest vegetables, deadhead your roses, and water your fruit trees. There is no way you can do everything at once. Or is there?

Exceptions that allow multitasking in the garden are 1) if you can let the hose, sprinkler, or soaker hose run while you do one of the other jobs, 2) if you have a robotic mower that will mow your lawn for you. 

Still, you can only do one of those other jobs at a time, unless you can get a family member to help. Good luck with that!

Happy Gardening.

Featured Image: Robotic mowers and soaker hoses are two great helpers for multitasking in the garden, freeing you up for all that weeding and deadheading. Photo by Jack Jelly (

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