A quote I found buried in the old notebooks of my late mentor, Fletcher Reese Plambech, got me thinking: “Multitasking is the coitus interruptus of mental intercourse, that pleasurable process of achieving a good idea.”
There have always been jobs that require folks to divide their attention over multiple fronts. Back in the day, locomotive engineers had to keep an eye on steam pressure, crossings, and when the coffee pot was running low. In the old one-room school house, teachers attended to the behavior and progress of an assemblage of students with different abilities and backgrounds. Airplane pilots have always had to monitor a bevy of gauges and master dozens of switches, levers, and pedals in order to keep from crashing.
In these and other jobs from bygone days, the various activities were essential components of the whole enterprise. We continue to juggle different facets of singular undertakings—such as mastering turn signals, pedals, steering wheel, and mirrors as parts of the single mission of driving a car—but now we’ve added additional layers to the age-old practice of multitasking. Thanks to higher expectations imposed by technology, we’ve burdened ourselves with simultaneously taking on disparate chores, engaging ourselves in multiple unrelated activities all at once.
I’m not going to devote much attention to the most obvious example, the ubiquitous cell phone being carried by most everyone into most every situation so their owners can stay connected and current while performing other tasks. Even during social and family activities, the gadgets are omnipresent as people look away from friends and loved ones to check out the latest celebrity Instagram posts and other social media trivia. Many of us are victims of constant self-imposed distraction.
This phenomenon—along with the deleterious effects on kids of spending excessive amounts of time staring at a screen—has been duly noted and discussed in social media and internet articles. We all agree that allowing ourselves to be divided this way is bad, shameful even, that we don’t interact personally in the here and now. No need to keep beating this horse. Instead I’d like to focus on another facet of the multitasking issue: our diminishing capacity for sustained concentration.
Think of the different hats you wear within your workplace. You’re situation probably resembles the doctor’s office receptionist who toggles between multiple roles: insurance liaison, filer of forms, compliance specialist, customer service rep, personal secretary, screener of sales reps, interpreter of medical jargon, and counselor. Note that all these are different jobs, each of which entails its own skill set and knowledge base.
Compare our multiple-hat-wearing receptionist with the guy who operates a bulldozer. He performs only one job, although he must spread his attention widely. He keeps tabs on the engine temp and fluid levels, and he must concentrate on handling rocks, trees, and steep terrain in order to move dirt and achieve the desired shape and grade. He probably sits atop that machine most all day, except for breaks and lunch, pulling levers and pressing pedals. He’s multitasking in the same sense as the locomotive engineer and car driver, but he’s never required to exchange his cap for another one; he wears the one with the “CAT” logo all day.
Teachers in public school classrooms, on the other hand, need a closet full of hats for all their different jobs: interior decorator, hostess, security guard, committee chairperson, family counselor, therapist, dispute mediator, data specialist, acronym translator, nutrition specialist, liaison between administrators and parents and students, IT specialist, graphic designer, content deliverer, chat room moderator, and progress evaluator. A mental toggle is flipped with each hat change, jolting the wearer back and forth between roles. No wonder she’s not proficient in every job her occupation requires; she never has enough time to master any of them. But time management isn’t the only issue. Also at stake is management of her Pool of Focused Attention.
We all have a PoFA and how we use it can mean the difference between success and mediocrity, or even breakthrough success and abject failure. Consider craftsmen and artists. For illustrative purposes let’s use someone who works with clay. Our potter has been fortunate enough to turn her avocation into vocation. She wears the same hat all day, even though her attention is divided between time at the wheel, making glazes, and tending to the kiln.
Of course, there are other considerations such as purchasing materials and marketing her wares. But most of her time and attention is spent designing and making interesting, beautiful, and/or useful pots, bowls, plates, cups, and urns. Her dry, cracked hands testify that this is the work that makes up the bulk of her day.
When she’s shaping something new, her mind is focused on a single task, the physical execution of an idea. The result is an object that she has used her mind, talent, and experience to create. I’m sure that when she’s in shaping mode, bringing her vision to fruition, her cellphone is off and she’s logged out of Facebook. And, fortunately, she doesn’t have to send in to an administrator each week a set of formative and summative plans with supporting data of the work she’s done and will be doing.
Our potter, like the rest of us, has a limited PoFA. Her capacity for sustained concentration can be depleted. She has learned that in order to create she must protect her Pool of Focused Attention from outside forces whose constant toggling would siphon and slosh it all away, portioning out the precious resource until its power to effect change is nullified.
The potter knows that, regarding our ability to create and use our talents effectively, the concept of multitasking is a myth. Instead of being evidence of intelligence, wearing a multitude of hats for the sake of a paycheck (or acceptance) is making us impotent and stupid.
If I could add anything to FRP’s quote, it would be this: We must be diligent in finding the hat that fits and reflects who we really are and damn stubborn about taking it off. The stuff that’s constantly flying around our heads is ephemeral; what we create with our minds through sustained concentration can be lasting.
Is there a more worthy goal than spending ourselves—depleting daily our PoFA—to make lasting contributions? Each of us must decide and keep deciding as the shitstorm swirls, gaining mass and velocity. Hold on to your hat! Your legacy depends upon it.