Last summer my husband, Peter, and I spent two weeks on a family farm in France—a sort of "working vacation" in which we exchanged labor for room and board. The farm was home to a menagerie of pigs, cows, dogs, cats, chickens, and pigeons, but lucky for us, we didn't have to worry about any of them. Our sole responsibility was the family's herd of goats, which we were supposed to milk twice a day. It was the easiest job on the farm. And yet one morning, halfway into our stay, we managed to almost blow it.
I should mention that goats and I don't have much in common. Beside the obvious differences (horns, a taste for hay), there is a major psychological contrast: Goats are masters of single-minded focus. I have seen with my own eyes that a goat can stand for hours in a field atop an overturned metal pail. On the other hand, I—like most people—spend my days juggling several tasks at once: reading the news online while eating breakfast, talking on the phone while getting dressed, hopping between five browser tabs, and constantly, constantly checking my e-mail.
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It's what we all know as multitasking—trying to pay attention to numerous things simultaneously. We claim to do so in the name of efficiency, but some scientists now think the real attraction to multitasking has a lot to do with dopamine, a feel-good neurochemical released when we're stimulated by new things (say, an unread e-mail message). As Adam Gazzaley, MD, PhD, assistant professor of neurology, physiology, and psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, explains, "We're all novelty junkies"—and multitasking, especially the electric kind, is a great way to get a fix.
I thought the farm might provide the perfect break: There aren't many distractions in a barn, and there's nothing technological about milking goats. Well, almost nothing. With 27 of them on the farm, hand-milking had been replaced by suctioning tubes—similar in concept to breast pumps—that attach to the goats' udders and suck the milk into a large metal bucket. Each morning Peter and I connected the tubes to the buckets, wheeled them over to the milking shed, and herded the goats into a waiting pen. After leading the first group of animals into position, we'd hook up the tubes and work our way down the row.
Looking back now, I can explain the importance of each step of milking. But when the farmer first explained the process—in French—I was listening with only half an ear. My brain was busy with other things, like trying to write the beginning of an article, and figuring out how I could coordinate the deadlines with my travel schedule. Instead of allowing the goats to free me from my bad habits, I was bringing those habits to the goats.
There are times when multitasking can be valuable—say, you're a pilot monitoring the plane's instruments while talking to air traffic control. But recent evidence suggests that multitasking with unrelated activities—such as trying to write an article in your head during a milking training session—can impair short-term memory and interfere with mental processing.