Chef Laura: To multitask or not?

Have you been to the bathrooms at Linger? 

Like any residential toilet, after you flush, the tank refills with potable water.  Linger’s commodes are no different, but the refilling tank is designed like a sink faucet.  Patrons are encouraged to wash their hands with the soon-to-be toilet water.  On first use it seems both odd and slightly unsanitary (maybe because Linger was once a mortuary turned restaurant, aka “eatuary”), but it’s actually quite brilliant.

This toilet/sink combo is a multitasking machine.  But should humans try to do double duty as well?

I am a member of the proud, and slightly neurotic, Multitaskers Club.  Like a marathoner running the tangents, I too am always looking for ways to shave precious seconds off the clock.  Successful chefs must multitask.  And most women I know pride themselves with juggling multiple tasks at once.  So put the two together and I feel like the Hair Club for Men commercial:   “I’m not only the president, but I’m also a client.”

Case in point, I was talking a chef friend of mine and we had a good laugh, at her husband’s expense, on his attempt to make dinner the other night.

“How was it?” I asked.  “Well, we didn’t eat until 9 pm, and by that time I was too pissed to care.”  She went on to explain that her non-culinarian spouse made each component of a traditional spaghetti dinner in sections.  First, he made the sauce.  Once the sauce was complete, he boiled the spaghetti.  After the pasta was cooked, he made a salad.  Finally, he preheated the oven to warm the bread.  Three hours later…voila!  Dinner was served.

Chefs wear multitasking like a badge of honor.  When honed like a knife, it can be one of the best tools in the back-of-the-house.  Other folks like to focus on one task at a time.  Outside of the kitchen, can we multitask and still be effective, or are we just fooling ourselves?

As I strapped Swiffer sheets onto my feet to clean the hardwood floors, while I Zumba’ed in my living room, waiting for my manicure to dry, I did some research.  Turns out there have been several studies pa-pooing the art of multitasking.  According to these uni-taskers, taking on multiple projects at once lowers our IQ by 10 points, reduces productivity by 40%, and “confirms” that humans are incapable of truly multitasking – they are just jumping from task to task and spinning their wheels.

Hmpf! 

A critical journalism practice is to be objective and show both sides of the story; especially the side you happen to agree with.  I was pleasantly surprised to find an article by the Harvard Business Journal in favor of multitasking. 

Key reasons in defense of multitasking:

  1.  More agility when working with a team by providing information faster.
  2. The ability to take a break from one project when you get “stuck” and shift your focus.  As a writer, I can vouch that sometimes a quick round of Words With Friends while throwing in a load of laundry, does wonders for writer’s block.
  3. It’s good training for climbing the corporate ladder.  Being able to put out fires while still completing your own work is a necessary skill of leaders.

“To multitask or not to multitask?” is like asking how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop…the world may never know. 

But if you want to get proficient at multitasking, well, that’s like asking how to get to Carnegie Hall…practice, practice, practice.