Following up from my previous entry Keeping your balls in the air, I came across a post from the Fast Company blogs this morning about taking time to think.
Here’s part of that post:
Margaret Heffernan: Stop Multitasking
Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, at 11:30, my calendar had an unmovable meeting. It lasted only half an hour but my assistant knew that on no account could it be changed or cancelled. And so, three days a week, at 11:30, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d walk out the door; IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d be back at noon.
No, it wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t face time with the boss. I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t visit a therapist and I wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t at the gym. I held this all-important appointment for myself. It was my thinking time. I had finally reached the conclusion that, if I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t book time to think, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d never do it. I couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t do it at my desk Ã¢â‚¬â€œ phones, email, and In trays were too distracting. I couldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t do it at home Ã¢â‚¬â€œ kids, husband, garden, house, and the permanent pile of laundry were too demanding. If I wanted to think then I had to make time for it Ã¢â‚¬â€œ and get that time protected.
What IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d discovered was the downside of multitasking. Nowadays, we scan our email while talking on the phone, check the Blackberry in the bathroom, make phone calls from the train. Women, weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re told, are natural multitaskers, confidently cooking dinner while on the phone and supervising homework. Men struggle to emulate us, proudly boasting that they too can attend soccer matches while listening in on conference calls. The competition is not just about how much work we can shift but how many different jobs we can complete simultaneously. Real leaders, weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢re told, have a bias for action Ã¢â‚¬â€œ so to look like leaders, we become hyperactive, never doing two things when we could be doing four.
It was interesting to hear some comments on multitasking from a woman’s point of view – I worked out quite a while ago that, while my wife seems quite capable of actually doing multiple tasks simultaneously, I really cannot do that. Even just talking on the phone takes so much of my attention that I cannot realistically do anything else other than reflex tasks (such as walking). I can’t even type more than a few keystrokes while trying to hold a conversation – it’s one or the other, not both at the same time. It’s a male thing.
I can task-swap (change between tasks quickly) – although I’m not terribly good at that either, but I simply can’t multitask.
But Margaret is right in that this multitasking (or even just task swapping) also prevents most people from getting meaningful think time. Deep thinking is something that takes a lot of brain capacity – and if you already have a large chunk of that capacity taken up with other tasks, then there’s not enough left to really think through things – to get your bearings on where you are in your daily tasks, or even to sort out how to take your next steps towards your life goals.
Like Margaret – I also do a lot of flying, and I do find this a great opportunity to get some think time in – and I also do this a lot in cabs. This is one of the reasons I sit in the back seat of cabs – the visual stimulation from sitting in the front seat while driving through busy streets is distracting – I can’t concentrate on my thoughts. Sitting in the back, relaxing and just letting my mind wander for a bit, mulling over my tasks for the day, or the activities I’ve undertaken that week – or what I’ve got on over the next few weeks … is a good time to sort out some priorities and ponder how I might approach some of the challenges that I have coming up.
This is one trap I’ve found recently with my iPod. Filling my head with music, or worse, listening to podcasts … while relaxing or informative … don’t give my brain time to slow down and think. I’ve had to allocate “iPod time” and “thinking time”.
Thinking is hard work. It requires focus. It requires us to tune out the surrounding distractions. For some people, replacing those distractions with something like music does work – I can do it with some gentle background music – it helps in some circumstances.
But people who spend their entire lives needing some form of mental stimulation – whether it be the television, their iPod, or some other distraction … I suspect don’t actually spend a lot of time thinking. They should try it sometime – it can be a useful and productive exercise.