Implausible Polymaths in the Era of Multitasking

As I write this, my stereo is playing Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan en concert à Paris (somewhat softly) from the other side of the room.  This is probably a terrible idea.  Judgments about my taste in music aside, it’s probably a terrible idea because, in theory, I should really be focused right now on what I’m writing.  But instead, some part of my brain (which I may be only even be dimly aware of) is fascinated by and concentrating on this Pakistani singer guy making sounds I am most definitely not accustomed to hearing on a daily basis.  I’m not even being really present and attentive when it’s just me, alone in my apartment.  I’m going to put Nusrat on pause.

The evidence from neuroscience research has been piling up over the last few years, and what it’s saying is this: the human brain is not wired for multi-tasking.  Our brains evolved to focus deeply and primarily on one thing at a time.  The majority of articles I’ve read on the topic say that our modern insistence on multi-tasking isn’t just going against the biological grain, it’s probably damaging our brain, and killing our creativity.  It’s worth noting that while digging up those articles I’ve just linked to, I couldn’t even focus 100% on reading them.  I got distracted and skipped/skimmed around the text, and somehow wound up looking at mid-century modern armchairs for sale on Etsy.  My stereo is still off.

The problem seems to be that even when we think we’re being super-efficient (e.g., emailing and talking on the phone at the same time), we’re forcing our brains—against their natural structure—to start and stop and start again.  There are little micro-pauses in there every time our focus changes, because the functions of writing an email and listening to someone require different areas of the brain to fire up.  That repeated “jukebox-like search” as Dr. JoAnn Deak calls it, is ruining our ability to think deeply.  And I’m looking at teak furniture on the internet again.  But just for a second.

My initial idea for this post was to write about modern-day polymaths—Renaissance men (and women).  Something I’d heard on a television show the other day really struck a chord with me, and I  wondered if there were more, or fewer, polymaths than there used to be.  And also if I (with my 30-something-year-old, less-elastic-than-it-used-to-be brain) was still capable of becoming really good at multiple things.  My fixation on Poul Jensen-designed Selig chairs certainly doesn’t bode well there.

“Life’s barely long enough to get good at one thing. So be careful what you get good at.”
– Detective Rustin Cohle, True Detective

No less an authority figure than Macklemore (via Malcolm Gladwell, via K. Anders Ericsson) has talked about the difference that 10,000 hours of practice makes in mastering a craft.  Part of me feels reasonably good about my progress toward 10k, re: reading & writing & editing.  And part of me thinks, “Wouldn’t it be really fucking cool if you could play the harmonica?!?”  And part of me wonders whether a propensity for multi-tasking/distraction is irrelevant because natural-born talent (or a lack thereof) has basically already decided my level of proficiency in these matters for me.

Even if I’m not now (and unlikely to become) a polymath, training myself to stop multi-tasking still seems like a good idea.  The demands of my office job probably make dreaming under a tree for hours on end (à la Jim Henson) an unrealistic option for my continued employment.  But maybe I only check email at predetermined times during the day.  Maybe I stop spinning jazz records while I read at home.  Maybe I stop checking Twitter while watching television.  Maybe I stop checking Twitter and stop watching television.  Maybe I stop hyperlinking so damn much in my blog posts.  Maybe I stop picking up that fucking smartphone every time it beeps at me.  Maybe I get rid of my smartphone, or all phones, or any form of electronic communication, or any form of communication at all other than handwritten letters delivered by ponies.  Or maybe I just go listen to all three of those Nusrat CDs in a row with absolutely nothing else going on.  Maybe I get on with it already—but only it, and nothing else.  Maybe I’ll check in with you later.

4 Comments

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    When my device cries, I have to go to it, see what’s wrong. And my device is always crying, or just about to cry.

  • Nicole says:

    I’m tempted to make a list of all the ways I’ve multitasked today; I suspect others might have the same response to this post, which provides such a nice opportunity to reflect. By discussing the problem of focus, you’ve created the space for others to do so.

    Another thought: it’s not just that we multitask. For my part, it feels like I *should* multitask. I find myself on the edge of a head cold, and what I most need is a nap, but the to do list intrudes, demands, and there goes the device beeping again, and it’s a nice day, shouldn’t I do x, x, and x? Can I do some of them at the same time? Screw it. I’m taking a nap.

  • Jaime R. Wood says:

    I’m with Nicole. We live in a time and space where multi-tasking is expected of us. I hate it, but I do it all the time. I had to change the settings on my phone so I wouldn’t hear notifications when I got an email, FB message, Tweet, IM, or whatever other form of communication the tech world things I need. I had to block the phone from crying out because I could feel myself getting physically tense and stressed each time it did, and sometimes the cries were mere seconds apart. I felt like I was being driven insane. Even so, right now, as I type this on my Chromebook, my phone is inches away so I can grab it at whim and check up on my baby.

  • I read an interesting study about gender differences in job hunting. Women are less interested in jobs with longer commute times than men, even if it means better hours, better pay, and more power. In the study, they interviewed a large group of women to see why they didn’t understand that more “down time” during their commute could be a good thing. They could listen to music, or an audio book, or learn a new language.

    What they found was that for women, commuting time is not their time. It’s just more time for them to project manage kids, chores, errands, spouses–basically more time to think about all the things on the ToDo list that doesn’t get done.

    I have a friend who completely unplugs for at least one week every year. I’d like to be able to do that one day, but I’m not there yet. The most I’ve managed is 3 days and that was mostly because I had the flu.

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