Multitasking and the still small voice

Oct 17th, 2009 | By | Category: Ministry

Welcoming newcomers is considered a proper thing to do, so the inclination to stay in familiar company was resisted and a few polite minutes were spent talking to the newcomer who sat alone in the corner.  Not that he probably listened to a word of it, he seemed to spend most of the time glancing around, half answering questions; it was a relief when he finally excused himself and walked away.

There was a bishop who would have done it more convincingly.  He would chair meetings where he would make appreciative noises about the comments being made while all the time reading papers for the next meeting or writing notes unrelated to the discussion.  Whatever his pretence of interest, he would have no proper recall of what took place, relying on the minutes to tell him what it was he had been ignoring.

“Multitasking” is one of the great myths of the age; the belief that one can perform well tasks that each demand significant  levels of concentration. Harry Eyres’ column in the Financial Times expresses pleasure at the debunking of the concept.

. . . the findings of a group of researchers from Stanford University, showing that multitasking is a sure recipe for incompetence, pleased but did not surprise me.

The Stanford researchers had been testing abilities to switch between tasks and discovered that those who were accustomed to working simultaneously with a variety of media “performed worse on a test of task-switching ability”.  It was believed that this was probably due to a “reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set”.

The Stanford research might explain all sorts of phenomena, including the inefficiency of numerous offices, but, at the back of the mind, there is a sense that it did not need Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences to tell us something we knew.

In times when distractions were few and far between, there was an emphasis on quietness and concentration.  Schoolwork in classrooms would have been completed in silence; offices were places where people worked in an almost reverential hush (some still are!)

If, for centuries, an almost monastic silence and single-minded application were considered necessary for tasks to be done well, then it seems odd that it should be assumed that people could somehow have changed; that human mental abilities should suddenly develop in the space of a generation.

The Stanford research, that people,bombarded by multimedia stimuli, lose their ability to concentrate fully on any of them, perhaps has lessons for the church when it is tempted to abandon its traditional patterns of worship.  The argument that multitasking reduces people’s ability to exclude the irrelevant leads to the conclusion that the fullest concentration, the fullest mindfulness, is best achieved through silence.  Sometimes those experiences in Old Testament times seem not so ancient after all, God was not in activity and noise and bustle, but in quietness:

And, behold, the LORD passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the LORD; but the LORD was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the LORD was not in the earthquake:

And after the earthquake a fire; but the LORD was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.

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  1. The research was about multi media users though. People on Twitter, Pc’s, Blackberrys etc. I work in a very quiet office but I’m still expected to juggle 11 things at once. It would be nice to be able to focus quietly on the task at hand frankly.

  2. Do you attempt to do eleven things at once?

  3. I can relate to that. For example I’m sure there are lots of people who are convinced that they can drive and talk or text on their mobile phone or read a newspaper or map and yet if you are a fellow road user stuck behind them as they wobble slowly from one side of the road to the other you would disagree!

  4. The people with Sat Navs who go round with one eye on the road and one eye on the screen are a hazard as well. No-one would claim they could drive properly with a paper map propped up inside the windscreen, but I saw one Sat Nav device fixed halfway up someone’s windscreen

  5. The key to reducing multitasking is to prioritize your workload. This will require a good hard look at what you need to get done. Just as multitasking is a myth, so is “everything is a #1 priority”. Once your to-dos are prioritized, working through them, one at a time will not only take less time than attempting to multitask your way through them, but the quality of the results will also improve. Hmm, less time and better quality – not much of a downside to uni-tasking is there?

  6. I’m glad uni-tasking is a positive thing! Multi-tasking for me is to use a knife and fork and talk to someone at the same time!

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