Multitasking is a Myth

 

“80% of life is just showing up” ~Woody Allen

My adventure back into school has taught me well beyond the coursework I slave over each night. I entered with a hubris that didn’t exist in my first go-round through university, having worked for several years and feeling more confident about computing than many of the other students. The initial assignments quickly brought me down to earth, in a gratifying, this-won’t-be-a-waste sort of way. But this week I noticed something that I was fighting back in college, and still seem to be fighting now. I take all my notes on my laptop and have become quite proud of my organizational skills (a topic for another day). The professor this day encouraged us to run a few commands on our computer, initially creating some issues for me. I popped over to Google, searched for a solution, but soon found myself struggling to find the fix. It was at this moment that I realized the professor had moved forward, onto a new topic, and I asked myself honestly, “Can I focus on him and this issue at the same time?” Not surprisingly, the answer was no. While I could turn back to Google when he paused, constantly switching between my issue and the lecture, simultaneously doing both tasks was impossible.

Luckily, testing things on my computer wasn’t compulsory, so I returned to the lecture. Beyond listening, I had to process the ideas and update my assumptions on the subject. Attempting to be elsewhere at the same time made learning impractical. This idea spreads beyond the classroom. We’re forced to process loads of information each day and act accordingly to reach our goals. I want to be healthy, so I decide that a chili cheeseburger might not be a good choice for breakfast. But when our minds are asked to take on several thoughts simultaneously, one is prioritized while another is set to the side.

The world seems to bombard us with information every chance it gets. Large corporations openly state that they are “paying for eyeballs”, ad-speak for “paying for our thoughts”. Understanding that I can’t multitask, I’ve taken a few cues from others to keep my mind on track. I’m happy to have freed myself to focus on things that matter to me, an idea that I’ll surely come back to over time.

Email

Email is not only a technological advancement, like Netflix or cameraphones. For many of us, it is our lives. It has become a crucial medium for maintaining relationships and a key communication tool within the workplace. Many jobs revolve entirely around email. Respecting this, I’ve made investments to ensure that only important messages make their way to my inbox. While reading a few subject lines may seem like a trivial price to pay for a bevy of possible deals, the daily whack a mole played with online marketers is a brutal waste of our most valuable resource. It was years before I acknowledged how messy my inbox had become, finally putting a stop to it one night in September. It was never the inbox that was the problem, but the toll it took on my thoughts.

The first time I heard it referred to as “a todo list that other people put items on”, I knew I had to change the way I approached email. For years, I would wake up, immediately go to my email, and check if anything ‘good’ had come in overnight. I’m not sure what the hope was, maybe an update from a social network or a newsletter to read. But my own experience tells me that my mind is best in the morning and to give that time up to others is asinine. Working on my own projects, reading books, or writing this blog takes full commitment and attempting to multitask with the issues I will soon face at the workplace is a battle I cannot win. I have hard rules about avoiding email before I begin ‘working’ each day. It may seem impossible to do in a time-sensitive job, but these limits have made me question what truly needs attention before 9am.

Writing

Unfortunately, plenty of day dreaming still happens after a thorough email cleansing. Problems arise that pose questions which linger. Future decisions, whether days, weeks, or months out, can act as an ever present anchor to all other tasks. We run circles in our mind about a seemingly endless set of outcomes and how to react. Putting these thoughts to the side may feel rude, as if they aren’t receiving enough attention. In reality it’s this sidelining that allows them to be taken on directly, without the congestion of everyday life. Unfortunately, society puts stigmas around the handling of everyday mental health situations. Seeking advice from a mental health professional should be applauded, as it shows respect for one’s mind that many of the critics lack. Personally, I’ve turned to writing each day to remove the thoughts that cloud up my head. By writing, I mean journaling. A quick, ten minute brain dump of the things that are sitting on the tip of my mind, usually unloaded immediately before some creative morning work. This habit comes directly from Tim Ferriss’ look into his own ‘morning pages’, and is a large reason I’ve been able to remain productive while taking on some of the biggest decisions of my life.

It’s impossible to avoid all useless thought but acknowledging that our minds can’t possibly focus on daily deals, difficult decisions, and a complex spreadsheet simultaneously is a huge step in the right direction. The human brain may be the most remarkable thing ever, we ought to treat it as such.


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