Does multi-tasking help you deal with all the distractions in life? Or does just hearing the word “multitasking” drive you to distraction? If the latter is the case, you have plenty of company.

I think the term multi-tasking is a euphemism—a way to put a positive spin on learning to tolerate a work-style of constant interruption. No one would choose to be jerked randomly off task again and again until you have half a dozen things you’re trying to get done, all at the same time.

The email, instant messaging, and cell phones we all love have caused this problem. They give us fabulous communication ability, but because we live and work in our own little worlds, that communication is totally disorganized.

Working in an office with an array of electronic devices is like trying to get something done at home with half a dozen small children around. The calls for attention are constant.

Plus, multi-tasking is tempting due to so many brief download times and other computer-related pauses and slowdowns. In addition, many people feel they must multi-task because everybody else is multitasking, but this is partly because they are all interrupting each other so much!

Yet I am multi-tasking as I write for no good reason at all. I am printing an order I placed online, glancing at my email now and then, backing up some files, and I just hung up the phone. Oh, and did I mention my two computers and three monitors?!

So, is multitasking a good thing or a bad thing?

That depends on whether you’re referring to people or to their work. A person who learns to juggle six balls will be more skilled than the person who never tries to juggle more than three.

And the chess player who develops the ability to play two dozen boards at a time will benefit from learning to compress his or her analysis into less time, even if he or she doesn’t play each of those simultaneous exhibition games in top form.

Experts say you can’t concentrate on more than one task at a time–that “multitasking” is actually a rapid toggling back and forth between tasks. This is the reason jurors are not allowed to take notes in the courtroom and why it may not be wise for students to take notes during class. While you’re writing, you can’t concentrate nearly as well on what the speaker is saying.

However, I believe that one can indeed work on two or more tasks at once, but in ways yet to be understood. For example, we’ve all had the experience of trying to remember a fact and failing, only to have the fact pop into our consciousness hours or days later when we’re absorbed in a totally unrelated activity.

It’s clear we were continuing to work on locating that fact, even though we were unaware of the mental activity. There was no toggling back and forth: the task was running in the background.

And people who work crossword puzzles know that if they stop making progress, they should put the puzzle down for a while. After time passes, they may pick up the puzzle and find the missing answers obvious.

What to Do?

Multitasking is not a skill to be dismissed or avoided or feared. It is the people who can do many things at once who are the most valuable in a chaotic situation, especially when time is important or much is at stake.

Another point: Do you find it difficult to concentrate, especially in a quiet environment? Or do you take frequent breaks for coffee or tea or a snack? Multitasking may work for you especially well. After all, multi-tasking arises out of distraction itself.

That said, I would not encourage children or teens to multitask because we don’t know where those efforts may lead. Attention-deficit disorders seem to abound in modern society, and we don’t know the cause.

Yet I would not discourage multitasking that seems to occur naturally, meaning at the young person’s own initiative and when he or she is in control of his or her situation. Society needs people who can manage projects in addition to handling individual tasks.

Keep in mind that you can multi-task more easily when using one sense than when using more than one sense. Have you ever noticed that when you must struggle to hear something, you close your eyes? That’s why: You’re turning off a competing sense.

For example, say you can comfortably watch six children in a swimming pool. You will be much less comfortable watching only four of them if two are standing nearby and talking to you.

Regardless, multitasking often is stressful. Consider how annoying it is to talk on the telephone while someone else in the room is trying to tell you something. But turn on the speakerphone, and the problem disappears. Why? You’ve stopped multi-tasking. Unlike children clamoring for your attention, the speakers will try to cooperate.

The difference between talking on your cell phone while driving and speaking with a passenger is huge. The passenger is aware of your driving environment and tailors his or her conversation accordingly. The person on the other end of the cell phone is chattering away, oblivious.

To sum up:

Don’t multitask while you’re studying. Teens think listening to music helps them concentrate. It doesn’t. It relieves them of the boredom that concentration on homework induces. Not that this boredom is minor. The boredom can be so intense that homework seems intolerable otherwise. If this is a serious problem, change your environment. So far, coffee houses don’t seem to mind!

Do multitask when the task focuses are closely related. Speaking of coffee houses, try watching the baristas. They are more than efficient: The best ones look like they’re enjoying their feats.

Do play more than one game at a time. This is a painless way to learn how to do many things at once. Just don’t play with a person to whom you’d hate to lose. Unless she’s multi-tasking, too!

And be sure to multitask when you absolutely love it!