Monday, June 23, 2014

Mindful Multitasking?

Guest Writer: Moira Allen

Is Multitasking Good for Writers?  (or anyone else)

Link to this article here:

Show me a writer who doesn't "multitask," and I'll show you...

well, I'm not sure what.  But I'm not worried about being held to my half of that sentence!  I seriously doubt that, in today's "do 50 things before breakfast" world, you could show me that writer.

Let's face it: We all do it.  We have no choice.  As I've said before, the speed at which we can do things hasn't saved us labor.

It's simply caused us to have to perform 10 tasks in the time once required for one.

The problem is not that we multitask.  Again, in many cases, we have no choice.  The problem is that many of us have been led to believe that multitasking is a good thing because it speeds up our work and increases our productivity.  After all, it stands to reason that if you can do two things at the same time, they'll both get done faster than if you did them sequentially, right?

Unfortunately, studies are showing that this isn't true.  In fact, it seems that multitasking can actually DECREASE your productivity -- by as much as 40%!  In plainer words, that means that either one will accomplish 40% less while multitasking, or that the actual time required to complete one's tasks may increase by 40%.  I think.  Studies also show that multitasking increases the chance of error.

Which makes me feel loads better, because I was beginning to wonder if I just "wasn't doing it right."  One of my most common forms of multitasking is to work on Project A on my computer, while scanning articles and images for my Victorian website on the scanner sitting next to my desk.  Scanning is boring.  I can't handle just sitting there and turning pages, so it seems logical to multitask: Work on something else, and pause to flip pages as needed. 

Only it doesn't tend to work that way.  Instead of making good progress on Project A, and getting a pile of scanning done, I find that BOTH projects actually tend to suffer.  All too often, I get distracted from Project A (and turn to something simpler, like e-mail or checking my eBay sales or playing a game).  As for the scanning, all too often I end up rescanning the same page because I forgot whether I actually pushed the button. 

My husband can attest to another hazard of "multitasking."  When we lived in Virginia, my office was downstairs, the kitchen upstairs.

Many a dinner -- and many a pan or teakettle -- burned to a crisp because I'd pop downstairs to do "one quick thing" while cooking.

That's one reason why I always use a whistling teakettle, even though today my office is in the "breakfast nook" and the rate of burned dinners has decreased dramatically.

Mothers have multitasked for millennia, so I figured the problem wasn't simply that I was a dinosaur, less hardwired to multitasking than the generation born with a cell phone grafted to its fingers.

So I decided to check a few articles to see whether the problem was more than "just me." 

Unfortunately, although there are many articles on the evils of multitasking, those articles themselves can be confusing, as they provide different "examples" of what the author thinks multitasking actually is.  One, for instance, sets up an example of a woman fixing a meal (I'm not sure which meal, since it involves eggs and a salad).  The article defines mixing the eggs and washing the lettuce as "multitasking" steps, while heating the pan is "parallel processing."  In my mind, this is not multitasking at all; it is simply a set of steps involved in the single task of "preparing a meal."  Multitasking, to me, would be preparing the meal while popping back to my computer to answer e-mail.  Other articles describe "exercising" and "listening to music" as a form of multitasking, and again, I disagree.  Most of us use music as an integral part of exercising, to set the tempo for our workout.

We're not doing two separate things - but if we were attempting to work out and hold a conversation, we might be.

Pursuing different projects within the same general time frame - i.e., during the same week or even the same day - is also not "multitasking."  If one works on Project A for one hour and Project B for the next, or Project A on Monday and Project B on Tuesday, with the goal of completing five projects by Friday, this is not multitasking.  Working on several projects at once is not the same as working on them simultaneously.  Otherwise, we wouldn't need such concepts as "prioritizing" or "scheduling."

So here's my definition of "multitasking": being engaged simultaneously in two or more activities that require a comparable amount of concentration.  For example, I cannot switch pages on the scanner without removing my focus from the computer.  I must physically turn my chair, lift the book or magazine from the platform, turn the page, reposition the item, close the lid and push the button.  It requires both hands, both eyes, and a modicum of brain power.  If I am, say, editing this newsletter at the same time, that task also requires both hands (on the keyboard), both eyes (on the screen), my chair to be positioned facing the computer, and (one hopes) a modicum of brain power. 

In short, multitasking involves what researchers describe as "switching."  One is not, actually, doing two things at once.  One is rapidly switching between tasks - edit a paragraph, "switch off" from that task, turn the chair, reposition the book on the scanner, "switch off" from that task, turn back, edit the next paragraph.

Each switch requires a certain amount of physical adjustment (turn chair, take hands off keyboard, move book, hit button, turn chair, put hands back on keyboard).  But more importantly to researchers, it requires a mental adjustment, known as "goal switching."  Once you switch goals, the next step is "role activation" - I must go into edit mode, then into scan mode, then into edit mode.  In each mode, I must focus on the types of tasks or steps involved in THAT task, and "switch off" the focus on the alternate task.

Even though the time involved in "goal switching" and "role activation" can be just a few tenths of a second, these switches add up.  More significantly for writers, the more concentration that is required by a task (such as writing), the more we are likely to be distracted by the constant interruptions of multitasking.  It's hard for a stream of thought to flow if it is constantly being diverted.

Obviously, we're not going to stop.  There are too many demands on our time to hope that we can avoid multitasking altogether.

However, if you're feeling frustrated, blocked, and unable to concentrate, this could be the culprit.  Once you realize that multitasking isn't actually going to get your work done significantly faster, it can be reserved for the tasks that require the least brain-power.  And writing definitely isn't one of those tasks!

Here are some interesting articles on the topic:

The Cognitive Costs of Multitasking, by Kendra Cherry

You Say Multitasking Like It's a Good Thing, by Charles Abate

Multitasking: Good or Bad? By Roger Kay, Forbes

Reprinted with permission from Moira Allen, Editor

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Mindful Living with Poetry

Don’t give me the whole truth,
don’t give me the sea for my thirst,
don’t give me the sky when I ask for light,
but give me a glint, a dewy wisp, a mote
as the birds bear water-drops from their bathing
and the wind a grain of salt.

Olav Hauge.  Selected Poems. White Pine Press. 1990.

Olav H. Hauge (1908 – 1994) lived all his life in Ulvik, a village in the west of Norway, where he made a living off the apple crop from his orchard, an acre in size. His poems begin with simple things, a wild wind dying to become a breeze, rough cut curb stones (stabbesteinar) along a country road, tramps, knives. His themes carefully build from the simple to universal and heartfelt. Pruning his trees was mindful work and he continued such with words on paper.

Mindfulness calls us to live in the moment, be it rest or work. Hauge’s poem centers his request on the dew he can comfortably hold in his hand. A wise man.



Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Efficient Mindful Living

Zondervan Publishing author, Phillip Yancey liberally footnotes his writing, giving the reader appetizing food for further thought. In Prayer, Does It Make Any Difference, he references a quote by Thomas Merton, another of my favorite authors.

When a journalist asked Thomas Merton to diagnose the leading spiritual disease of our time, the monk gave a curious one-word answer: efficiency. Why?  ‘From the monastery to the Pentagon, the plant has to run…and there is little time or energy left over after that to do anything else.’

Efficient: tight, productive, no waste, organized, economical.  My thesaurus adds resourceful, proficient, effective, ecologically aware.  What else would you add? Efficiency sounds good, right?

We walk efficiently with little wasted energy.  If I cut out a pattern, I always line the paper close to the edge of the material so there is little waste. The flaw in this efficiency is that I am left with one larger piece of unused material rather than two smaller ones stashed in a bin. You can’t just throw away good material. My husband’s garage displays organized clutter on the same principle.

With the onslaught of technical communications, we experience fewer moments of calm and more strangling measurements of our substance. Computers were going to turn us into a paperless society and we all know that was a myth. Social media connects us but also devours time before we become mindful of its passage.

Our children expend their youth thumbing video games on TV or their cell phones. As Merton points out, increased production comes at a price of our time and energy. Each  celebrated birthday presents us with a cake and the monster that jumps out is the question: am I the person I want to be? Have I accomplished everything I should?

Unfortunately, efficiency isn’t patient, kind, long suffering; it gets the job done. In a country club or church kitchen there is usually one efficient worker who sets the pace and decides how the congregational dinner will be served. (Caution: Do not get in her way.) At one time we worked with three merged congregations, and at the first funeral lunch there was confusion because each group had served fruit salad a different way. The women literally stood and looked at each other until one stepped forward with a solution for the day.

There is a myth of our culture that if we are efficient we will be productive. And if we are productive we will be fulfilled and content. Ergo, if we are not content, there must be something wrong with us.

Full bore productivity rarely works long term. Brain research shows multi-tasking is an illusion. When headaches or depression get our attention, we attempt to fix ourselves using the myriad self-help books available, because -- there must be something wrong.

Or, we search for contentment on vacations (I deserve it), recreational shopping for clothes and jewelry (I deserve it and its fun), signing our children into activities that fill every spare minute of their time (I didn’t have these opportunities and they deserve it), or, we numb our frustrations with food, drugs, alcohol. Pick your poison.

Efficiency has its place but unless we handle it carefully, deliberately appreciating economical movements and accomplishments, efficiency becomes the black knight crusading for achievement at any cost.
Efficiency becomes the opponent of mindfulness: deliberate working and contemplation throughout our day.

How do you evaluate efficiency in the context of mindful living?

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Mindful Living and Acceptance

My difficulty with meditation unsurprisingly lies in my mind. I place myself in a peaceful setting alongside a gently burbling brook. I look for shades of green and concentrate on the light revealing multiple hues in a single blade of grass.

Try as I might to leave regrets outside my meditative state, they camouflage themselves until I accept them as part of the scenery. They then explode from the shrubbery repeating the mantra I have heard in my head for years. “How could you not have known! Look at the trouble you caused!”

Unpleasantness in my life appears to lurk around the edges, discouraging attempts at quiet meditation. Its potential presence chases me away from meditative moments when I might reach acceptance. Busyness is easier to handle but makes mindful living more difficult. Running from a quiet space, I suppose there are people who live without regrets and I should be one of them. Silly.

Memory is never 100 percent accurate. Other people bear responsibility for their reactions in the remembered situations that year after year give me fits. I am egotistical when I take absolute responsibility for all outcomes of my choices. Circumstance has never been in my control. 

Ralph Waldo Emerson didn’t own a tape recorder or cd player so he couldn’t encourage us to erase the tape and cultivate good thoughts. He did write: "Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense."

When waking in the morning, lying in bed and deliberately getting reacquainted with each body part prepares me to live in the space allotted me. Deliberately greeting the morning with a few minutes of quiet, picturing people I know and their needs during this day, stretches me out of myself and into the community I value.

I would be better off if I daily read the following prayer (taped to my bookcase for so long it appears an unnoticed fixture). As an entree to mindful living, it admits my imperfections and releases me from busying so hard I fail to find self acceptance.

O, that You would bless me indeed and enlarge my territory,
that Your hand would be with me,
and that You would keep me from committing evil.



Sunday, June 1, 2014

Mindful Living in Space

Space can be a matter of time, physical property, presence in and beyond our earth. We may value space as an interval of rest, of remembrance.  

May 25 was Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as we used to call it. Flags in cemeteries marked the graves of veterans. In too many homes the day was somber. Family and friends who are no longer with us were remembered. I saw posted on Facebook a picture of this person's Marine friend who has been gone for six years, but not forgotten.

Several of our passed residents were veterans of the Second World War. Monday we remembered them and the nightmares that told us more about their involvement than their conscious stories.

Not only military personnel are remembered. Positioned between Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, there is a space where many valued persons used to be. As each is unique, that space is not readily filled. Nor need it be. It remains a memorial.