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Everything at Once In a Multitask World

Unlike computers, which welcome multiple pieces of information coming in at the same time (well, every computer but mine, I'm afraid), our brains don't handle all that simultaneous information too well. "In your brain, it's more like channel surfing. You can focus on one thing at a time," according to Mariette DiChristina, Scientific American Mind's executive editor.

The stress involved with multitasking can also lead to short-term memory issues that trip up productivity even more.

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A recent study by the Families and Work Institute in New York City showed that 54 percent of U.S. workers have felt overwhelmed at some time in the past month by how much work they had to complete.

Perhaps some folks are catching on to the fact that multitasking isn't such an easy thing for us mere humans: The District of Columbia, New York and New Jersey have all banned cell phone use without a headset while driving.

But some people swear by multitasking.

Like many of you, Lyndsay Barber mostly eats lunch at her desk -- while reading, typing or doing some other work.

When it comes time to organize her association's annual convention, she can be found at her desk in the District writing an article for her industry publication, while the phone is cradled between her ear and shoulder as she asks questions about blocks of hotel rooms.

Her mornings go something like this: 7:45 arrival time. Answer e-mails and get phone messages while also reading The Washington Post online. She does Web site maintenance nearly every day while toggling over to another screen to write an article or check e-mail.

The thing is, Barber likes what others might see as a nearly impossible juggling routine. "I feel like I do a better job working when I have a lot on my plate," she said. She feels that she gets more accomplished when she is under pressure. And she has always been like this, she said. "Even in college I would take a full class schedule with many activities."

However, she admits, she often gets sidetracked from that list of things she wants to accomplish during the day.

One worker who wrote to me listed all of the duties she has to take on during the day, feeling that the only way to get it all done was to struggle with a few things at the same time. Toggle between screens, listen to a client on the phone while reading or writing e-mail. You know the scene. But she sums it up the way many people would: "Why am I not getting paid FOUR salaries: designer, IT specialist, network admin, custodial staff!"

(Sorry. I was just checking my e-mail and answering my cell phone. What did you ask?)

Join Amy Joyce from 11 a.m. to noon Tuesday at washingtonpost.comto discuss your life at work. Have gripes or issues about your workplace that would make an interesting column? E-mail Amy at lifeatwork@washpost.com.


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