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The Joy Of Unitasking: One Woman's Story


WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine

By Jenny Allen - Yesterday, watching the news while using the elliptical machine at the gym, I tried to speed up my pace by...turning up the volume on the TV. I do it all the time. I also regularly forget to unplug my headset before walking away, treating my fellow gymgoers to the spectacle of my jerking to a sudden, yanked stop.

I never laughed when people used to joke about President Gerald Ford not being able to walk and chew gum at the same time, because I didn't really find it that funny. I actually can walk and chew gum at the same time. But, truly, I understand why others might find it taxing. When it comes to multitasking, I am more competent only by a hair, and sometimes not even that.

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More than once, I've found myself standing in my bedroom closet holding, say, a screwdriver and a cup of coffee, as clueless as a sleepwalker about what I am doing there. And I cannot answer the phone while writing an e-mail without sending the message to the wrong person-or calling the person on the phone by the name of the person I'm e-mailing.

Obviously, I am especially unsuited for multitasking; but I would argue that, while most of us are doing it, none of us is doing it very well.

If you are playing a family board game while making cookies for your block's bake sale, are you really playing a board game with your family, or driving everyone crazy by jumping up to check the oven every five minutes? Why have women signed on to do so many things at once? We don't, after all, expect men to multitask. A man lying on the sofa reading the newspaper is busy. A woman lying on the sofa reading the newspaper is underemployed and interruptible-a signal her family picks up because she herself sends it out. We seem to consider ourselves unworthy unless we make ourselves available to our family and others all of the time-and there's no way to do that without cramming every minute with two or three chores.

Consider the opening scene of a movie (I'm making up the scene, but we've all watched similar ones): A woman drives a car full of noisy children to school while soothing her harried boss on the phone while cooing at the baby who's spit up in his car seat. This scene is not the premise of the movie that follows, which is always about something else-extraterrestrials visiting the woman's suburb or her husband's affair with his 20-year-old assistant or whatever. This scene is there to show us life as usual before everything goes kerblooey-Mom having a normal American day in contrast to the chaos soon to befall her. But entire movies have been built around the premise of Dad having this same day (because Mom died, or went to visit her sister). And these movies are considered hilarious. Dad wiping up baby spit while talking to the boss on the phone-how sidesplitting!

Of course, we women do not do ourselves any favors: "How do you do so much!" we compliment each other. And: "I wish I could juggle as many balls as you!" I think we should stop giving each other points for wearing ourselves to a nubbin, stop comparing ourselves unfavorably to frantic acquaintances who cannot sit still, even for a moment. Let them careen along at hyperspeed while we stay in the slow lane. Maybe, when they get tired enough, they will join us. We'll have them over for a night of our kind of multitasking: doing our nails, say, while watching something really dumb on television. Better yet, just watching something dumb on television. We'll call it unitasking and invite others to join our new club.

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