Why Do We Love Multitasking? Because We're Wired to Make Order Out of Chaos

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Like most working moms, I'm constantly being sucked into a Bermuda Triangle of Domestic Chaos. I am the Queen of Multitasking, concocting new survival plans with my husband by the day, or sometimes even by the minute, to solve these weighty puzzles: Who's going to drive which child to school or practice? Who has time to do the grocery shopping and cook dinner after work? When should the dog go to the vet? And, oh yes, how can we schedule a movie date when our sitter just canceled?

I revel in this chaos. The library needs volunteers? Sure, sign me up. Relatives coming to town? Great! I'll get out the sheets and towels tonight. A tight work deadline? Sure, I'll work on Sunday.

"You're burning the candle at both ends," my mother constantly warns. "The stress will kill you. Besides, research shows that multitasking makes you less efficient at everything."

Really, Mom?

Okay, yes, it's true that some researchers have put the kibosh on the idea that multitasking makes us more effective in certain arenas, like in classrooms where we're expected to, say, master algebra. Teachers have good reasons for wanting kids to stay off YouTube while doing homework. (Check out this article on multitasking myths in The NEA Higher Education Journal.)

But, my God I love multitasking. Now, after watching "Two Nerdy Obsessions Meet--And It's Magic," the recent TEDWeekends talk by magician and puzzle master David Kwong, I understand why: human brains are wired to solve puzzles and make order out of chaos.

Like Kwong, I've been a Scrabble addict for years. I get my biggest kick not out of making single words worth mega points, though, but out of filling in boxes with short words like "ax" and "ha" with key letters on crucial multi-point squares. I treat my daily "to do" lists the same way.

For instance, I love to see how many errands I can combine. When I drive my youngest son to his bus during the school year, I bring the dog along in the car and my grocery bags, too. I kiss my son goodbye, work out at the gym, stop at the grocery store, and walk the dog--all before going to work at 9 a.m.

I approach housework the same way. Cleaning one room at a time upstairs, I move forward and downward as I go, picturing my house as a grid. I sweep chaos ahead of me until I dump everything into the trash and recycling bins downstairs at the end. Success! Another puzzle solved!

Kwong is right: people are born puzzle solvers. I've been inspired by how enthusiastically my children have learned language, absorbed math, mastered technology, become skilled athletes, and fallen in love. Life for them--for all of us--is an infinite variety of puzzles about what it means to be human and live in this world successfully.

In my own work as a novelist, I solve puzzles on every page. My task is to figure out how to create visual images and emotions out of words strung together to create a certain impact on readers. Each of my novels is really just a giant puzzle of about four hundred manuscript pages--one that takes me a year to solve.

You may not think of yourself as a multi-tasker, or even as someone who enjoys puzzles, but the next time you need to get things done, try making a game out of it. Organize your Saturday to see how many errands you can combine in a single trip. Give yourself a score and try to beat it the next Saturday. Do the same when you clean house: can you clean your entire house without backtracking? Or can you work on a crossword puzzle as you fold laundry or do dishes?

Yeah, I know. Silly games. But solving puzzles is what makes life magic for humans.

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