Today’s tip on how to save the world: Stop Multi-Tasking!

Posted by on 08.23.08 | 6 Comments
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A tip of the hat to my friend Dave Pollard for using the name of his excellent blog (How to Save the World), and large bow of thanks to J.D. Roth’s site, Get Rich Slowly for the concept and grit of this post.

Newsflash: To do two things at once is to do neither well. Doing three things at once makes us dull and those around us want to run screaming into the night, once they get over their admiration of our virtuosity…

While it’s a pretty well-accepted idea that women multi-task better than men, it’s been my experience that once men get on the bandwagon, they’re as good or better at it than women. One man I know and love a lot, Andy, will often have 4 computer screens open and working (each with 8-10 open sites) be talking on the phone, listening to a baseball game or podcast, IMing with 2 or 3 people and…it’s mind-boggling to me. Sure, I can sit in my office and talk to 3 employees at once, be aware of what’s happening the front lobby of the office where I work, be on line and yearning to be outside all at the same time, but that pales in comparison to maestro Andy. Now, he’s a geek and a software engineer, so he gets a handicap point for the 4 computers going at the same time, but I’m still behind in the game of how many ways one can split up one’s attention, supposedly for productivity. What I’m beginning to know is that this addiction to being in more than one place at a time kills creativity, connectivity and spontaneity.

I just came home from a fire keeper gathering in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. We sat around a fire for 48 hours or so, laughing, crying, eating great food, savoring amazing chocolate, smoking cigars and connecting to the natural world. We didn’t sleep much, but I came home rested–in my spirit. Why? Because I didn’t do more than one thing at a time. I had no cell phone reception, didn’t take my laptop with me. About 30 minutes into being there, I felt my body relax and sigh ‘finally’.

Our bodies and spirits take a hit from the intensity of trying to connect to so many things, people, ideas. Going on a techno-fast is something that some favorite bloggers have done. It’s a good thing. While I can’t do that totally, I’m going to try to be less connected in some ways, so that I can be more connected in others.

I’m not superwoman–and I can’t expect the depth of connection that I crave to hit me while I’m moving so fast. It takes time and dedication to develop those kinds of connection: to the natural world, to other people, and to whatever one considers divine.

So…back to J.D. Roth. Here’s his post almost in entirety from Get Rich Slowly, posted a couple days ago:

Posted: 21 Aug 2008 05:00 AM PDT

Multitasking has killed my productivity. At this moment, on this computer, I have:

  • Five open browser windows with a total of 59 open tabs (in Safari)
  • 79 open text documents (in BBEdit) — I am not joking
  • 14 open images (in Photoshop)
  • 55 unread messages in my mailbox (and 48 additional unread Get Rich Slowly comments)
  • Three open chat sessions
  • Seven open word processing documents (in Microsoft Word)
  • And ten other open applications

That’s 227 discrete tasks awaiting my attention. That doesn’t count the dozen or so books submitted for review, the eight unread personal finance magazines, and the pile of papers spilling onto the floor.

Do you know how many tasks I can focus on at a time? Only one.

And do you know how productive I am because I try to do so much at once? Not very. By trying to do it all at once, I get very little done. According to author David Crenshaw, I have bought into The Myth of Multitasking.

The Myth of Multitasking
Multitasking is a misnomer, Crenshaw argues in his new book. In fact, he says, multitasking is a lie. No — multitasking is worse than a lie. Crenshaw writes:

When most people refer to multitasking, they are really talking about switchtasking. No matter how they do it, switching rapidly between two things is just not very efficient or effective.

His book contains a marvelous exercise with which readers can prove to themselves that this is actually the case, that “switchtasking” takes longer than actually doing one thing at a time. In “The Autumn of the Multitaskers” (from the November 2007 issue of The Atlantic), Walter Kirn also wrote about this phenomenon:

The great irony of multitasking [is] that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking…A brain attempting to perform two tasks simultaneously will, because of all the back-and-forth stress, exhibit a substantial lag in information processing.

Multitasking — or switchtasking — makes us less productive, costs us time, and generally leads to the feeling that we’ll never catch up.

In search of lost time
Crenshaw’s book suggests some tips for overcoming multitasking in the workplace. In addition,
his website offers three “beginning steps” to help slow down switchtasking in your life:

Take control of technology. Make space for yourself. Turn off your cell phone. Close your e-mail and chat programs. Shut the door to your office. Or, if you’re like me, learn to deal with one browser tab or one document at a time.

Schedule what can be scheduled. To minimize interruptions and mindless switchtasking, schedule whatever you can. Learn to use a calendar to schedule meetings with people so that you can give them your full attention. Set aside specific times each day to check your voicemail and email. (This is a technique that Tim Ferriss preaches in The 4-Hour Workweek.)

Focus on the person. When you deal with other people, be in the moment. Do not divide your attention between the conversation and another task. Be an active part of the conversation. Listen. Take care of everything before moving on.

The Myth of Multitasking is a short book that conveys a single, critical idea: to do two things at once is to do neither. While I think this book is excellent, and while it was exactly what I needed to read at this point in my life, I would not be willing to purchase it for the $20 cover price. It’s well worth a trip to the library, though. (And it might make a good gift for a boss or spouse or a co-worker.)

On the other hand, if Crenshaw’s book really can make me more productive, then it’s worth $20 and much, much more.

Take control of technology, schedule what can be scheduled and focus on the peopleit’s not easy, but this is my new work mantra. I’ve seen the looks on the faces of employees who are trying to get my attention, knowing that it’s divided. I don’t like being responsible for that look. I want to be present to them, to myself. And most of all, I want to be present to my friends and family and to Andy. They deserve no less.

What are we teaching our children about being present to their lives by our insistance that being engaged-with-the-more-things-the-better is the gold standard of a life well-lived? I fear we are sacrificing depth of relationship to constant movement and distraction.

Here’s to taking control, in a good way. I can’t stay in the mountains, and lord knows I’m no hermit or nun, or monk for that matter, but I can live into what some of the great thinkers, mystics and other ‘be’-ers have said:

Nothing is more important than what’s in front of us this minute. Engage with it single-heartedly. Leave the distractions alone. They’ll be there when we’re get done with this moment’s work. This is one part of how to save the world: make all our interactions… with people, animals, the natural world, technology… equally important and valuable and something we would truly miss if we couldn’t do them anymore.

So with that, I’m going to take a nap and finish for the 2nd time in a decade, Jimmy Buffett’s sweet and funny tale of entering middle age: A Pirate Looks at Fifty. It helps to know that the smiles and dozing I’ll be doing is helping to save the world.

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