Are You Multi?

Scott Gardner

I’m a good multitasker. With any project I take up, my mind can work on at least two levels at once. While part of my brain focuses on completing the task, another part is busily devising ways to avoid responsibility for my inevitable failure to complete the task. It’s a complex dual-goal skill which I have developed so well that often the excuse-making task can be completed before the actual task has even been started. There’s a certain beautiful efficiency in that.

A friend recently clued me in on a popular brain training model called Conscious Discipline, which to me seems like a sort of multitasking at the thinking stage. She told me the brain has three main states that are concerned with personal safety, connection with others, and problem-solving. Imagine that you’re standing under the red pickup lamp at a popular café chain, waiting for your order of a latté and cinnamon bear claw. Service is slow. The safety portion of your brain starts to consider issues of survival (“I might starve”) or conflict (“That guy at the condiments table putting half-n-half in his grandé has his eye on my favorite window seat”). The connection portion of your brain may also be hard at work (“Excuse me, miss, but how long does it take to microwave a fricking bear claw?”). If we are disciplined creatures, however, we will be able to simultaneously utilize the problem-solving portion of our brains and turn the entire experience into a learning one: “Next time I’ll go to Krispy Kreme.” This learning may in turn help us navigate more successfully through similar scenarios in the future: “I can’t wait to see Mr. Half-n-half’s face when he walks over and finds my backpack already parked on the chair!”

If we consider all these levels of brain function working and informing each other concurrently, then to some degree all of us are multitaskers. This brain model of Conscious Discipline seems much more productive than the model I used to follow, Conscious Debauchery, which consisted not of three brain “states” but of one mind “track”.

To be fair, though, multitasking is usually not concerned only with brain activity but rather with physical activity—literally doing two things at once. The classic example is the person who can rub her belly with one hand and rewire an electrical outlet with the other. I used to work with a generally disliked English teacher who would demonstrate multitasking to his students by writing a homework assignment on the chalkboard with his right hand while at the same time erasing what he wrote with his left.

He called that multitasking. But in my mind what he was doing was something I call nullitasking. This is a kind of multitasking in which you are doing A in order to solve X, while simultaneously you are doing B which—perhaps indirectly or even without your knowledge—exacerbates X. A simple example would be someone watching an exercise video on YouTube while shoveling takeout French fries into his mouth. A more intricate case would be someone who offers to babysit his neighbor’s toddler while she preps for a big job promotion test, but then keeps texting her with “How’s the studying going?” or “Is it OK if I give Johnny a soda? Some parents aren’t cool with that.” One task seems to be nullifying the other.

A recent, frustrating real-world example I’ve been seeing on TV is crowds of angry Americans marching on their local government offices during a global virus pandemic, demanding that social contact restrictions put in place to protect them from contracting the virus be lifted so that they can exercise their freedom, go back to work and resume their “normal lives”. As part of this protest, the marchers huddle closely to show solidarity, and shout at the top of their lungs to be heard. Facemasks and social distancing are seen as impediments to their liberty during this demonstration, and are not utilized.

Now that I think about it, nullitasking might just as easily be described by already-existing terms like “self-defeating behavior” or “sad irony.”

The most eloquent example of nullitasking would be if I could do a single task that nullifies itself, like create a Wikipedia entry on the dangers of relying on crowd-sourced information dumping. I’ll get started on that, once I’ve finished writing this column and cooled my brain down a bit with two hours of “Animal Crossing”. Speaking of which, I wonder how that bear claw’s coming along.