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.
Ouch…. I needed that, Brett. I’m bad at all of the above, and you just made me realize that I need to refocus myself. I have gotten in trouble way too many times because I’ve been trying to study or write, and have been IMing or checking e-mail (even when I knew I shouldn’t be at some points).
Thank you for those excellent, convicting reminders, Brett. God definitely just spoke to me through your post. I needed that wake-up call. ūüôā
Can’t wait to read the res! ūüėÄ
Thank you for your post. Your words were both challenging and encouraging. Often, with regards to our culture, I can feel pressure that if Iím not doing more than one thing at a time, Iím being unproductive. This can be incredibly discouraging to me, especially since Iím not very good at multitasking! Of course, there is a place for multitasking. Mothers, in particular, often deal with situations that arise where there is no choice but to multitask. And we too, can multitask in order to keep our minds focused on good things by quoting or memorizing scripture, praying or worshipping the Lord while at the same time doing the dishes, cleaning our room or driving in the car.
However, I appreciate your point about doing everything to the best of our abilities for the Lord. I too, can become distracted from tasks easily rather than pouring my heart diligently into one thing. Practicing this will not only be a challenge and needed exhortation, but also a relief to my weary mind. Lately, I have been pushing myself to do more than one thing at a timeóthings that would be better suited to be accomplished alone (such as studying an audio Spanish course while making a mealóthatís pretty hard! Thankfully, I havenít yet added the wrong amounts of an ingredient while doing this!) In the end, however, one or both tasks are left unfinished or done half-heartedly, leaving me feeling discouraged over my lack of accomplishment, extremely exhausted and weary as I try to push myself even harder the next day.
So, thank you for helping me to see that multitasking isnít always the answer and that there is often a more productive solution. I pray that the Lord will enable us all to recognize times where multitasking is productive and beneficial and where it is only detrimental and to know the difference between the two.
Wow! Great post! It is very true that doing more than one thing at once reduces our ability to do each thing well. I have noticed this a lot in my life recently. I think this series, and this post in particular, may become one of my favorites, along with “Stop Wasting Time,” simply because this is the area I struggle most in. Thanks for writing this, Brett!
Excellent post series. Really brings some things to attention that I hadn’t thought about before (=convicting). It’s true – the times I am so busy multitasking, trying to do a little bit of everything at once, are the times when I’m not really accomplishing anything at all, or when I do, the results are less than my best. And then I wonder why I’m not able to give my full attention to certain tasks. Hmmm…how is that you guys always hit where it hurts?! ūüôā
This is a good post. I really liked the part about how multitasking detracts from the quality of our work. I forget how much I multitask–surfing three websites at once, reading a novel, eating lunch, writing a paper–all at once.
Good thoughts. Francis Schaeffer, in “Walking through the Mud”, ch. 5 of No Little People talks about the realism of the Spirit of Christ opposed to the escapism of the spirit of the world, practiced in morals and entertainment.
“But alc0holics and dr.g users are not the only escapists. So is the one who stands with a transistor radio pluggd into his ear much of the day. No one seems to want (and no one can find) a place for quiet — because when you are quiet, you have to face reality. But many in the present generation dare not do this because on their own basis reality leads them to meaningleness; so they fill their lives with entertainment, even if it is only noise.”
“Rather, we are to put everything second so we can be alive to the voice of God and allow Him to speak to us and confront us. So when Paul says, ‘Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God,’ he is not talking only about philosophical and moral beliefs. He is talking about resisting the pressure to conform to false moral standards and the escapism of a mad business which are even harder to wrestle with than philosophical and theological dangers. As Christians, we must follow God’s absolute moral standards, and we must not be robbed of a place of quietness with God.”
(See Eph. 5:18-19)
“Both in in theory and practice Christians can dare to face te realities of life unclouded. We do not need these things to fill the crannies of our lives. In fact, we should want to face reality: the glory of the world God has created and the wonder of being human — yes, and even the awful reality of the Fall and the tragedy of marre men and women, even our own flawed character. We are not to be people of escape. The Christian is to be the realist. To face reality as born again and indwelt by the Holy Spirit is the Christian’s calling.”
Francis Schaeffer, No Little People in 3 COMPLETE WORKS 60-62.
[…] The truth is that multitasking almost always hampers productivity, stifles thought, and harms relationships. For these reasons we can answer that, ‚Äúno,‚ÄĚ multitasking hardly ever helps us glorify God. […]
A great tool I have found which has helped me focus was suggested by my pastor, Matt Chandler: Post-it Notes! Whenever I am doing something and I think of something I need to write (blog, email, grocery list), I have a Post-it note near my journal, Bible, book or whatever I’m in the midst of. So, instead of switching to another task, I just jot down on the Post-it note what I need to do and go back to the initial task!
Secondly, I “schedule” (or, budget) my time for certain things (this applies at work especially). Since my job is email-oriented (maritime vessels), I set aside 15 minutes an hour for email. Having previously set up two folders (marked “Notices” and “To Do”; thanks David Allen’s Getting Things Done!), I can quickly move emails around to those two folders and later process the “To Do” folder’s contents.
Wow!! I do this all the time! I have often tried to listen to music while doing math and well you can guess what happens when i take a math test….
Thanks for this one! ūüôā
[…] A Challenge for My Generation (mentioned earlier…) My First Shower Nearly Killed Me (also mentioned earlier) Doing Less By Doing More The Room (by Joshua Harris, the twin’s older brother… this article/story is one of my all-time favorites). Why Teens Do Stupid Things Bored? Read This! Stop Wasting Time […]
awesome post! when i spend alot of time on the computer/internet i often look back on the day and wish i had spent more time w/ my sis or had taken the time to finish a good book…i’m going to work on limiting my tech. time & focus more on Christ & my fam-they’re so much more fulfilling to spend time with during the day!
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