Walk Now, Chew Gum Later
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Last night I was in a Chinese restaurant. At the next table there was a young woman with a fork in one hand and a cell phone in the other, using her mouth to chew and talk at the same time. Where I come from that is considered rude even if the food is analog and the talk is digital. All of a sudden a goblet of water went flying off her table. Bang! Crash! And still she went on, multitasking. She didn't even stop to shrug at everybody apologetically. She was too busy doing two things at once.

It's gotten this bad: In our society, doing two, three, four things at the same time is the norm. You can't just do one and focus on it. It's outre. What are you? A medieval monk bent over a crusty old manuscript? No! You're a many-tentacled hydra executing 12 tasks at once!

On the way home, I got behind a vehicle doing about 20. At first I thought it was one of those tiny geriatrics who can barely see over the tops of their steering wheels, but it wasn't. When I blew by him at the stoplight, I saw it was a young man talking on his cell phone while fiddling with his car radio. Driving and talking. Talking and dial-surfing. Hmm, I thought. He may be talking quite well, and listening with distinction, but his driving stinks.

That's the thing about multitasking. Some people can do it in such a way that each of their multiple tasks is accomplished as if it had been the subject of unique concentration. But not many. Most people are as lousy at multitasking as they are at everything else. Which leads to people being lousy at a whole bunch of things at once, instead of just being insufficient at one activity at a time. That's not an improvement.

Where did we get the idea that multitasking is good? From computers, which we want to perform a host of parallel chores from mandatory to superfluous? But we are not computers! We are human beings! And after two decades of heedless multitasking, I believe the time has come to take a step back and renounce the path we have chosen. We are shaving our consciousness down to tiny flecks that melt into nothingness like truffles in a plate of risotto! We are all over the place--and it must end!

Therefore, I want all of you to raise your right hands and repeat after me: From this time forth, I will not walk and chew gum at the same time. I will walk when walking is demanded, and chew gum when the time has come for me to do so.

I will not talk on the cell phone while going from place to place, especially with that little earphone that makes me look like a psychotic talking to himself. When I am in transit from one location to another, I will think thoughts that arise from my own mind, if that is still possible

I will not play with my PDA, Palm, BlackBerry, or other handheld communicator while talking with another human being either on the phone or in person. When the spirit moves me, I may even turn my wireless communicators off, switching them back on when I need to concentrate my full attention on the messages they have in store for me. This will ensure that I do not send messages like "Myes gdo mdiate $24K" back to people, screwing things up completely for no good reason.

Nor will I will send BlackBerry messages while I am in a meeting, even to my friend down at the other end of the table who is as bored as I am. Certainly it is fun! But I understand that there is no such thing as a little bit of multitasking, any more than there is such a thing as a little bit of crack cocaine.

I will not sit at my computer e-mailing while talking on the phone, meeting with people in my office, reading reports, making popcorn, or engaging in any other activity, because doing so makes me 25% stupider at each task than I would have been at any single one. That is a 25% I cannot afford to gain.

I will not talk to anyone while driving unless that person is actually in the car, and not even then if they persist in saying "Green light" when the light turns green, which is really annoying.

I will engage in business work on airplanes only when I have no interest in the onscreen entertainment. And when the in-flight meals and beverages arrive, I will pay close attention to them and put down my labors for the duration of the meal, even if the eating and drinking lasts for four or five hours, as sometimes happens in first class.

I will not, when I nap, mull things over in the back of my mind, but sleep with total commitment to the quality of the nap itself.

When I find it impossible not to perform a coincident activity while doing another, I will at all times limit myself to one additional task that is consonant with that which I have underway, such as singing while in the shower.

I will focus on my companions at mealtime, and not allow myself to be beeped, honked, or tweezed, nor will I read the business section of any newspaper while engaged in anything else even slightly worthwhile, like drinking coffee and looking out the window. I will, in fact, read the business news (except for FORTUNE) only when an offensive article is put in front of me. Anything more is a big distraction.

I will spend time with my family when at home, and not call Brewster, Forster, Weider, Steinmetz, Gruber, or Kurtz, even though there's plenty I could talk to them about while I'm supposed to be tossing the ball around with Frisky or doing homework with little Tabitha.

I will not watch TV and go online at the same time.

I will not watch TV, go online, and listen to MP3s at the same time.

I will not watch TV, go online, listen to MP3s, check my stocks, talk on the phone, and toast an English muffin at the same time.

I will not watch TV, go online, listen to MP3s, check my stocks, talk on the phone, toast an English muffin, and play Marbles (http://www.netives.com), Everquest (http://www.everquest.com), or Snood (http://www.snood.com) at the same time. Particularly Snood, which must be erased from the hard drive in order to be avoided once you get started with it.

This, then, is my pledge: that every day in every way I will think about the task in front of me and be satisfied with that activity, and do my best to complete it before I begin another, to calm my inner monkey mind, focus myself as a person, and thereby do a better job at whatever it is I have on my plate.

That's it, ladies and gentlemen. You may now lower your hands, grab a sandwich while working the phones for a couple of hours while downloading a bunch of MP3s while having discursive instant-message chats with eight or nine buddies while answering the 60 e-mails that came in since noon while looking over your snail mail and talking with the people who pass through your office during all of this.

Well, come on. We can't change the world overnight, can we, friends?

By day, STANLEY BING is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at stanleybing@aol.com.