The idea of multitasking has become quite prominent in recent years. The term was coined for computers, but multitasking was with us long before the word existed. The concept is that, given a number of tasks to be completed, it is often preferable, and sometimes necessary, to execute them simultaneously.
However, in the world of personal computers, a single processor is capable of doing only one thing at a time (pipelining aside). The most common solution is preemptive multitasking, a microprocessor version of “sleight of hand,” in which the machine consecutively executes a small piece of each task, rotating through the jobs so that all tasks are effectively performed in parallel. Make this process fast enough, and it appears to the user that the machine is doing the tasks simultaneously.
How did the concept exist before digital computers? Multitasking is an essential part of our personal and work lives. If you doubt this, just ask anyone who has had to take care of children while cooking a meal or doing other work. The ever-accelerating pace of life has placed increased emphasis on multitasking in recent years, and it was a no-brainer that the term would come to be applied to people shortly after it was coined for computers.
Although there are many levels at which multitasking can be viewed, the concept of human multitasking is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the challenges that those people who are in management positions have. After all, management is largely the wrangling of multiple simultaneous processes. While concert sound engineers must be aware of and, in turn, balance many things, they are focused on the one task of making the sound good. In contrast, the production or tour manager must worry about every aspect of the show from the sound to the hall's union help, the catering, and the condition of the truck drivers.
Multitasking is an increasingly essential skill, but there is an important difference between the multitasking that is done by a person and the multitasking done by a computer. If the software is well written (a big “if”), multitasking by a computer differs from executing tasks serially only in the time that it takes to complete a task; there is no difference in the quality of the work done.
Human beings, however, are not quite so simple as that. Of course, some people thrive on juggling a lot of things at once, but I have seen constant multitasking strain other people's ability to focus sufficiently on any of the tasks being handled, so much so that multiplicity almost cripples their ability to work. Results can include distraction, sloppiness, loss of perspective, anxiety, and numerous other undesirable side effects.
This is simply one more example of how necessary it is to have balance in one's life. For me, playing music, especially practicing, provides the kind of intense focus that can counterbalance the demands of multitasking. For someone else, it might be wiring a patch bay or painting a house.
As a child, my family had a neighbor who was an actor. Returning home after a performance, he often found release playing with Lincoln Logs. At the time, I thought that that was odd behavior for an adult, but it was explained to me by my parents that people with complex work also often needed to participate in simple play, and that somehow made sense to me.
Unfortunately, the downsides of multitasking are insidious in their manifestation, rather like quicksand: you may not realize what you've stepped in until you are already sinking. Fortunately, being able to recognize the pressures of multitasking is a powerful first step toward regaining balance, which, ultimately, gives better odds for escape than quicksand might.
Duality and paradox are ever present in our lives, and multitasking versus focus is yet another example of that. There is nothing inherently bad about multitasking; the pitfall to be avoided is losing one's balance.
Larry the Ois accustomed to spending hours alone in windowless rooms, during which time he fondles a small gold ring and mutters “My Precious!” a lot.