Call it multi-tasking? I call it fragmentation

By Morf Morford
Tacoma Daily Index

I am convinced that multi-tasking is one of the most common aspirational delusions that has pervaded the working assumptions of almost all of us.

Do you feel busy all day, but at the end of the day struggle to define a specific thing you actually got done?

At any given time, it seems that I am doing four or five things almost simultaneously – and I’m not just talking about listening to music while working.

I don’t know about anyone else, but I almost never focus on one thing. I eat breakfast, thinking about how my day is likely to unfold, wondering how I will balance, prioritize or delay competing obligations,  listening to the news, phone in hand, talking to someone and getting dressed as I pet my cat.

At work it is not so different – although my tasks and distractions are in fact work related. No cat on premises, for example. Phone calls, emails, beeps and chirps of all kinds from all manner of devices (some carefully hidden) schedules and meetings tend to mangle my focus.

Being scattered and overwhelmed have somehow become our "new normal," but that doesn't mean it is good for us - our health, our careers or our customers. Photo: Morf Morford

Being scattered and overwhelmed have somehow become our “new normal,” but that doesn’t mean it is good for us – our health, our careers or our customers. Photo: Morf Morford

A single-minded deliberate focus on one aspect of work strikes me as mythical as a rainbow hued unicorn on the edge of a gilded horizon.

Keeping my attention on a single task feels as archaic as an ancient land line locked in place on an office desk.

My daughter used to say that she got her best work done while multitasking. Young people think they have mastered multitasking – but the reality is that they do rapid task switching.

It is not the same, but it is equally wearing.

Supposedly the average smartphone user checks their email 150 times a day (and receives over 90 emails each day – and that is not counting texts).

Some are convinced that this non-stop deluge of distractions is making us ever more shallow and incapable of extended thought, sufficient analysis of complexities and fully developed decision making (https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127370598 or http://fortune.com/2016/02/03/nicholas-carr-internet/)

Others aren’t so convinced – https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/short-and-shallow-reading-on-the-internet-not-so-fast.

I love reading books. I try to read at least one book each month. I’m actually a bit ahead of my schedule for this year, but it might be at least a little influenced by my reading of several shorter books – some business books, some poetry and even some classic movie screenplays. In general I do find that I read fewer full length books than I did a few years ago. Even though I love big, serious books, I find that maintaining sustained concentration is far more work than it used to be.

The incessant, always intriguing,  irresistible sparkle of Facebook and Twitter are perfect for those disconnected moments between more “adult” obligations – and they seem specifically designed for that end of the day “zoning.”

But in those rare moments of reflection, I realize that multi-tasking is just another word for fragmentation and there is nothing more important in all the world to me, to my work, to the children in my life or even my cat, than my focused attention.

Seeing a child fully engaged with something, even something as simple as their own shadow, is a pure delight. Photo: Morf Morford

Seeing a child fully engaged with something, even something as simple as their own shadow, is a pure delight. Photo: Morf Morford

It turns out, (to no one’s surprise) that multi-tasking is the ultimate obstacle, if not deterrent to learning (and memory, but that is another story).

The trick to focus and productivity is to stay as “on task” at optimal level for as long as possible.

A good way to do this is to pay attention to your pace and level of energy. If you feel yourself (in terms of focus) drifting, take a real break – go do something different – take a quick walk, get some fresh air, have a quick snack. Just getting up and moving around will shake off the lethargy that comes with sitting and staring at a screen. (1*)

Too many of us take numbness as our standard. As you talk to people or do business, take note of the blank expressions you see. I see far too many.

It can take some work to actually monitor your screen and sitting time, but I am convinced of two things; you will be amazed – if not horrified – at how much time passes with nothing noticeable accomplished – and, in stark contrast, how much original work, that you end up being proud of (and just maybe, recognized and rewarded for) you can produce.

Just as school children are vastly more successful with adequate recess and activity time, adults too, return to work rejuvenated and focussed after a clarifying break.

I am convinced that ADHD, job burn-out and a multitude of other current physical and mental ailments peculiar to our time could be alleviated, if not eliminated, with a simple, no-cost solution like a brisk walk or a visit to a local park.

Leave your phone behind, take out those earbuds, talk to your neighbors and get your groove back at work.

You’ll feel better, do better work, and everyone you work with will appreciate the difference.

 

(1*)     For some strategies -  and even more dire warnings – take a look here