Thank goodness for AJ Jacobs. This is a man who knows how to write for attention-defunct brains. His chapters are short and concise and sprinkled throughout with humor (to keep my monkey mind on task), and I can sit down to read one and complete it in a relatively short time, limiting the amount of interruptions, both external ("Mom! I need my jeans!") and internal (I probably ought to throw that load of laundry in pretty soon.)
He does all of this, in many cases backed up by research that he explains in a simple, digestible way.
When I was reading My Life as an Experiment on my recent vacation, I was struck by one chapter in particular where Jacobs spends thirty days avoiding multitasking. Like most of us in Western societies with access to a multitude of technological toys and the perception that we need to be PRODUCTIVE above all else, he noticed that he had become increasingly unable to do anything with his full attention. I could give you examples, but I suspect many of you are lowering your heads right now under the weight of your own realizations. He did some digging and discovered that there is more than one research study showing that multitasking is, in all reality, much less efficient and more time consuming than simply doing one thing at a time. It also tends to split our attention to the point where we don't produce quality work like we would if we were single-minded. Over time, multitasking erodes our cognitive abilities to the point where our attention spans become pathetic little fleas, jumping from one side of the dog's rump to the other to find a tasty meal. Yikes!
I thoroughly enjoyed the chapter describing Jacobs' attempts to eliminate multitasking in his own life and decided to try it on my own. Disclaimer: I decided this while on vacation - away from home without the normal tasks of cooking meals, keeping house, driving kids to and from school and other activities, etc. I suspect it wouldn't have seemed nearly as possible an undertaking if I hadn't been lying near the pool in the sunshine when I decided this...
Upon arriving home, I began. For ten days I resisted efforts to empty the dishwasher while making my latte, check Facebook or email while writing a blog post or a book review, help Lola rehearse her lines for an upcoming play while folding laundry and watching the Oregon Ducks play football. It was hard. Really hard.
But I learned some valuable things.
1. When I multitask, I often start 57 things and only ever finish about 20 of them in a day. I have this frantic perception that if I don't at least start something RIGHT NOW that I'll forget I wanted to do it and it will be lost to the ether. When I explore that notion, I realize that if I forget I wanted to do it, it probably wasn't all that valuable a task in the first place and, it doesn't much matter that I started it if I don't ever finish the damn thing.
2. The more balls I have in the air, the more I have to worry about one dropping. It turns out that only doing one thing at a time is really calming. When I'm writing a book review and force myself to trust that All of Those Other Tasks Who Shall Not Be Named will wait, some part of my brain is given permission to shut down and rest for a bit. And that book review or blog post or letter to a teacher gets written much more quickly.
3. When I practice not multitasking with people (typing an email while I'm on the phone with my mother, playing a board game with Lola while helping Eve with homework, etc), they feel good. I can honestly say that, while it was terrifically challenging, using this tactic with Eve on her most recent homework project contributed to our ultimate success in completing it.
It occurred to me yesterday that multitasking is overkill. When I think about it, our bodies are already working really hard on several fronts simultaneously - pumping blood, creating white blood cells to knock off that cold virus we picked up from our kids, taking in visual information and processing it, moving our bodies through space, breathing, the list goes on... To ask them to do more than that is cruel and unusual punishment.
My single-mindedness has fallen off a bit of late. Old habits die hard, I guess, and Bubba has been out of town a lot lately. But when I recall the feeling of utter calm that came over me when I asked myself to do only one thing at a time, I am motivated to continue striving to get better at it.