I distinctly recall the first time I heard the word multitasking. It was in the late 1990s and I was in a colleague’s office for a meeting. She was sitting behind her desk and I was in a chair facing her. As we talked, she began to straighten up, ­picking up papers and glancing at them before ­assembling them in neat stacks. I asked if she would prefer I come back to which she replied, “No, no, I’m just multitasking.” Given the context, I was able to deduce the essence of the word, if not the precise definition. Setting aside the feeling of being a task she was handling, it was apparent that her full attention was not focused on our discussion. She wasn’t facing me as her eyes were directed to the documents she was organizing. And I could tell that the quality of the conversation was diminished by the intermittent attention it received.

Since then, multitasking became a buzz word believed by many to imply maximum productivity. Job postings include language like “must be able to multitask,” and I saw an employment application that asked “do you prefer to multitask or to work on one thing at a time?” I would bet the correct answer was not “I prefer to work on one thing at a time.”

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