For many of us multitasking is a way to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. “I usually finish my homework at school.” says Piers Cox (14) in an interview with TIME Magazine, “But if not, I pop a book open on my lap in my room, and while the computer is loading, I’ll do a problem or write a sentence. Then, while mail is loading, I do more. I get it done a little bit at a time.”
Unfortunately for Piers, and other teens like him, research shows that doing multiple things at once lowers the quality of each activity.
“People often take pride in their ability to multitask,” writes Dr. Edward Hallowell in his book CrazyBusy, “but often they do none of their tasks as well as when they focus on one at a time.”
In fact, a 2001 study conducted at the University of Michigan shows that 20-40% of a person’s productivity is eaten up by “task-switching,” the time it takes to mentally re-engage when shifting from one task to another.
“When you divide your attention, there is a loss on both ends,” says Lyman Steil, president of The Masters Alliance, “Our research is crystal clear that multitasking does not mean people are doing their work productively.”
Interestingly, many of us enjoy the rush of doing many things at once because it gives us a feeling of control and productivity. In reality our split attention is only serving to hide our diminished efficiency — we’re living in an illusion.
Though certain kinds of multitasking are possible without diminishing productivity — for instance when the tasks are simple and virtually automatic (think walking and chewing gum) — most multitasking which requires repeated task-switching is akin to jamming two TV signals down the same cable wire. The result is static, not high-definition.
Nevertheless, according to Presentations Magazine (October 2003 Issue) multitasking is such an ingrained part of our culture that most people don’t know how to change, even if they recognize the problem. The most common reason? “There’s not enough time to deal with it.”
How should we, as young people who have the time to “deal with it,” respond to this issue? What is our responsibility? Well, the first step, as always, is to look at what God’s Word tells us.
Working With All Your Heart
In Colossians 3:23 (NIV) the Apostle Paul writes, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men.” This idea of being singly-focused is the secret of true efficiency.
One way that I have tried to apply this in my own life is to never leave my Instant Messaging program open unless I actually need to talk with someone, and to close my mail program when I’m doing any serious writing so that I won’t be distracted by incoming emails.
However, when the project is particularly important, I do something even more extreme: I will throw away my web browsers so that there are absolutely no distractions on my computer. When I believe that what I’m doing is important I want to make sure I’m giving it my best, which is all of me — my full attention. I have found this to be one of the most helpful things I can do.
Of course, I do have my reservations. I am not always eager to completely shut off my connection to people and information outside my immediate purview. In the words of another author, “I might miss something, or someone might miss me. And that would be disastrous. Wouldn’t it?”
But, as I close AIM and drag Firefox to the trash, I realize that, no, it wouldn’t be disastrous. In fact, it would be better, because right where I am, doing what I’m doing with all my heart, is just where God wants me and my attention.
What This Doesn’t Mean
Of course, this doesn’t mean we should never multitask. Our ability to multitask is unrivalled by any other creature in God’s creation. It is a good gift, just not one to be abused.
What we need to understand is that both our ability focus and our ability to multitask are extremely valuable. We would never want to practice one at the expense of the other. Sadly, our culture’s busyness, where the average employee switches tasks every three minutes and is interrupted every two minute, seems to be crippling our ability to focus. Studies show that most employees are unable to focus on any task longer than 12 minutes.
As unfortunate as that is, we shouldn’t jump into the ditch on the other side of the road where every little thing we do requires 100% concentration. The Apostle Paul’s encouragement in Colossians comes right after he challenges husbands and wives in their marriages, fathers towards their children, and children and slaves in serving their parents and masters. In other words, Paul is exhorting us to honor God by giving appropriate attention to all of our relationships and tasks, not to chew gum with all our hearts.
We show our priorities by the focus and attention we give certain things. When we are gripped by God’s Word and fully absorbed in it, we demonstrate that we truly treasure the Bible. In the same way, we show how strongly we believe in the value of our work and studies by the attention we give them.
Our challenge is to get our priorities straight and then not allow our culture’s crazy pace to rob our work (whether it be homework or work-work) of the attention it deserves.