Many people would consider themselves to be good at multi-tasking. I would like to think I am not the first person in the world who has every brushed their teeth while blow drying their hair and finishing up a reading to save a few minutes in the morning before an 8 am class. Our culture is becoming more quickly-paced and task driven than ever before. Many graduate students are often rewarded for multitasking, and in fact many of us probably got into graduate school in no small part for our ability to manage a demanding schedule. However, if there is one thing that the rates of texting-related accidents has taught us it’s that we – and I include myself in that – think that we are better multi-taskers that we actually are.
Now I am not going to say that we should never attempt to do to more than one thing at a time. For example, research suggests that engaging in a low level cognitive task can actually aid in higher level thinking and cognitive processes, such as some people note that they can pay more attention and retain more information for a complex lecture while doodling or scribbling. While graduate students may have a strong ability to multitask, I would argue that many of us – again, me included – need to work on our ability to uni-task.
Speaking from my own experiences, I grew up in a culture and environment of instant results, instant gratification, and over-stimulation. As such, I am used to getting what I want, when I want it (well, actually, I want it ten minutes before I even know I want it), and I am going to be checking my email, texting, and impatiently tapping my foot while I wait. While we could have a discussion about the social changes that have led to a culture of multi-tasking and sit here and blame video games and HD movies, I doubt that our culture is suddenly going to go back to the good ole days where life was so much simpler.
The fact is our culture is what it is, and we do not have much ability to change that. We can, however, change our own behaviors. Practice doing only one thing at a time. For example, if you are reading for class, then focus all of your attention – to the best of your ability – on what you are reading. As your mind begins to wonder away from the task at hand, as it inevitably will try to do, notice your mind wander and shift your attention back to the task at hand. Notice that I used the word “practice.” This was intentional, because focusing on only one task at a time is difficult for the many of us who have been programmed to do a million things at a time. Over time, as you continue to practice, you will likely find yourself better at maintaining and controlling your focus on your current task.
While there are times when we have to multitask, such as when we are checking our rear-view mirror, monitoring cars around us, adjusting the speed of our car in order to safely change lanes while driving, there are other times in which multitasking only reduces the quality of all of the tasks we are trying to accomplish. By practicing uni-focusing, you will be amazed and how much quicker and of better quality we can accomplish tasks one at a time.