I have written several posts on creativity recently, and then made what probably seems like a detour to discuss the idea of multitasking. The thing is, this was not that much of a detour, as multitasking stands in direct opposition to most of what I have read about creativity, productivity, learning, and happiness in general. Remember that, when we talk about “multitasking”, what we are really talking about is “task-switching”. We are relying upon our ability to change our focus from one activity to another, and then either back to the first or on to yet another activity. Is this possible? Absolutely. Is it the most efficient way to complete these multiple tasks? Absolutely not. A growing body of evidence supports the idea that, in most situations, we would make better use of our time by completing two activities sequentially rather than trying to tackle both simultaneously. This approach is commonly referred to as “monotasking”. Now, does this mean that task-switching is bad, and we should not do it? Certainly not.
There are plenty of arguments to be made for combining activities, and in some cases, it can even be helpful. For example, listening to music has been shown to improve productivity when you are engaged in a highly repetitive task. Here is a link to a great article that summarizes much of what is known about the effect that listening to music has on our performance in different situations. The take home message is that the effect of music upon performance depends upon 1) the type of music, and 2) the type of activity. So few answers in life are binary. We will likely have to consider such questions any time we ask “is combining activity X with activity Y going to decrease my efficiency?” Take the idea of using a laptop during class. Is this going to impair my ability to learn? Well, it may depend on a number of factors. If I am already an expert in the material, then it probably matters little how I spend my time during class. If I am not an expert, but decide to spend most of my time checking Facebook and chatting with friends, then it is probably safe to say that I will benefit little from sitting in the class and having the laptop open is a bad idea. On the other hand, if I only use the laptop to look up terms and ideas related to class, the laptop might actually enhance my learning.
So when discussing the idea of task-switching or multitasking, I recognize that there are situations where multitasking might be fine, but I think these situations are not as common as we might want to believe. More often than not, the benefit of multitasking (for instance, listening to popular music while studying) is that it increases our willingness to engage in a particular activity. In other words, there is a trade-off: we sacrifice efficiency in order to make conditions more conducive to accomplishing our goal. We spend more time studying than we probably needed to, but we do it because we might not have studied at all if we had not played music. I do not think that this is a problem in and of itself. The real problem, in my opinion, is that so many of us are reliant upon the idea of multitasking, and neglect to develop the ability to focus on a single activity, or ignore distractions, for any significant amount of time. Using my laptop during class to look up unknown terms and find relevant resources might be beneficial, but only if I have the self-discipline to be able to ignore notifications, close unrelated tabs, and disregard all of the links advertising “10 things everyone should…” or “5 hottest women in…” that dominate most websites. This seems to be an ability that is in short supply these days.
I say this idea of multitasking is a problem, not just because students find Facebook more entertaining than class, but because this is becoming a common part of our daily lives. We embrace the idea that we should constantly divide our attention in so many aspects of our life, and often find it difficult to focus on any single activity for an appreciable amount of time without succumbing to the lure of distraction. Going back to the idea of flow that was proposed by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, this means that most of us are unlikely to achieve an optimal level of experience. Csikszentmihalyi defined flow as “the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.” It would be easy to assume that achieving flow is merely a lofty ideal, and not a practical notion. I mean, surely it is not possible to experience flow all of the time, right? Maybe that is technically true, but I think that perspective misses the big picture. I think it would be more valuable to ask whether it is possible for us to achieve flow more often in our lives. We may not find flow all of the time in every waking moment, but we can certainly build habits that put our lives on a path that will be more likely to lead to flow.
This is the problem with distraction and multitasking. By constantly dividing our attention, switching tasks, yielding to distraction, and only skimming the surface without ever taking a moment to delve more deeply into a subject or activity, we set ourselves up for failure. One of the hallmarks of finding flow is becoming so engrossed in something that distractions fade into the background, but how is that possible if our constant habit is to chase down every distraction and yield to the temptation to follow every link, respond to every text, or read every status update? How can we expect to develop our creativity if we are not able to focus on a skill or subject long enough to learn it or gain some level of mastery over it? If you listened to Csikszentmihalyi’s TED talk, or have read much about him, you probably heard him state that it typically takes a person 10 years to build up a skill or develop sufficient expertise on a topic to be able to truly exert creativity, or to create something new and valuable. I will admit that I find this difficult to accept, but I think that there is some truth to it. Malcolm Gladwell seems to support this same idea in his book “Outliers“, in which he stresses the idea that achieving “success” with some skill requires upwards of 10,000 hours of practice.
Whether or not you accept this idea completely, I think that it is safe to generalize and say that developing mastery over a skill, or mastery over a body of knowledge, requires a lot of work and dedication. Perhaps it takes less time for some than for others, but why is that? I think that popular culture promotes the idea that some people are more gifted than others, or leads us to believe that you are innately inclined towards some activities or skills. While certainly there may be innate factors that contribute to our ability to excel in a particular area, I do not think that these factors are the dominant force that determines our ability to be successful. I think that the most important factor driving our success is our desire or determination to succeed, and the largest hindrance to our success is our inability to focus our efforts towards that goal. In many cases, this is going to be a result of our habits. If you are not accustomed to dedicating your undivided attention towards a task, you are unlikely to achieve the level of mastery over that skill or subject that you might otherwise be able to attain. If you are unable to achieve a sufficient level of mastery, you are unlikely to be able to derive satisfaction and fulfillment from engaging in that activity, and you are also unlikely to be able to exert a very high level of creativity in any endeavor involving that activity.
So does that mean you will never be creative, or enjoy what you are doing? No, of course not, but we are talking about maximizing your capacity for enjoyment, fulfillment, creativity, productivity, etc. This is where the idea of monotasking comes into play. If we spent a little more of our time monotasking, rather than multitasking, we might find that “success” comes a little sooner. Monotasking may be challenging, however, in a world where distractions are almost hard-wired into our daily lives. Like many things in life, it takes practice to tune out distractions and focus on the task at hand, but sadly that is not something that a lot of us get much practice with, and it is a skill that our children are likely to find even more challenging. I recently read an article entitled “genM: The Multitasking Generation” that was published in Time Magazine back in 2006. This article discusses the effects that technology and multitasking have on children, and makes a pretty good case for helping our children to learn how to navigate through a world full of distraction and easy answers, to develop the ability to focus and concentrate, to learn patience and some measure of self-discipline. This seems to be a pretty challenging task, given that many of us do not really know how to do these things ourselves. Still, I think it is a goal worth pursuing.
I leave you with one last article that I happened to read, which suggests some approaches to becoming a little better at monotasking: