Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Do Few Things, But Do Them Well

I'm not a much of a multitasker. Sure, I may have four browser windows open, one of which is an episode of "Friday Night Lights" that is slowly buffering; I may have stacks of graded and ungraded papers surrounding me; I have my iPod playing, and I have Tweetdeck open in my background, sending a quick "pop" each time there's a new tweet. I may try to do many things at once, but I'm not good at it.

In Montessori school--I attended a public one through sixth grade--we were taught to retrieve "work" from the shelf, complete it at our own pace, and then return it to its spot. I wrote about it in a post last summer, Progressive Building Blocks. The philosophy of Montessori discourages multitasking and promotes focused, engaged learning. A spat of articles the past few years further debunks the idea that we can do many things at a time.

In "The Myth of Multitasking," Tanya Watkins writes that "chronic high-stress multitasking is associated with short-term memory loss." She cites a study that indicates that subjects who are interrupted during a task take 50% longer to complete that task and make 50% more errors than those who are uninterrupted. "Managing two mental tasks at once," she says, "reduced the brainpower available for either task."

While I've known for years that I can't multi-task, it's good to know that no one else can either - they're just kidding themselves. Back to grading: I had rewarded myself with thirty minutes of writing time after finishing one set of papers.


Aki Mori said...

I may have to remain officially neutral on the matter, because the older brother of multitasking is efficiency, and, I think I'm pretty much predisposed to being efficient. But there's another issue with multi-tasking: what tasks are we choosing to multi-task? Isn't it inevitable that if you become a hardcore multitasker, you will end up wasting a lot of energy completing items that really aren't that important? Or stated in another way, you begin to elevate the level of importance of things that need not be elevated. Watkins' research sounds like the kind that I could debunk fairly easily if I took a look at it (50%? Hmm...). But unofficially, I aspire to emulate her spirit: quality and meaning over speed and completion.

August said...

I read somewhere that we don't get better at multitasking; rather, we're more adept at switching between different activities. I think my biggest problem, when trying to do lots of things at once, is prioritizing those tasks. Like you said, elevating the importance of things that don't need to be elevated. I seek the instant gratification of a new blog post over the delayed gratification from a graded paper.

But if you are able to prioritize and keep things in perspective, multi-task away!

mkcillip said...

I find I'm less able to multitask today compared to college. Then, I'd have IM windows open, music playing, friends in the room, and I'd be doing homework and playing a game at the same time. Today, it's tough to take any distraction, and I can't stand instant messenger. With age, have my standards (...but do them well) raised, or have my capabilities fallen?