Singletasking: Just One Thing at a … Oooh, Shiny!

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Behold the multitasker!Behold the multitasker!

Behold the multitasker! Photo: Jagger on Flickr.com

Are you a human being or a human doing? What matters more to you: who you are or what you do? Or let me phrase that another way: when you introduce yourself, how often do you start with your job and hobbies? And is there another way to define who we are separate from what we do, or is that simply a false dichotomy? Why is it that we take so much pride in being busy even while lamenting the fact that we don’t have enough time for X, Y, and Z?

Bear with me here—I’m going to take a shotgun approach, pinballing in all directions in the hopes of finding the exit. I wrote about The Other Omnivore’s Dilemma last summer, about the difficulty of narrowing down my interests. And earlier this month Jenny Williams wrote on a similar topic with a different slant, asking Are You a Renaissance Soul? and recommending a few books on the subject. Which of course has now lengthened my reading list by two. (As with most people who love books, the more I read, the longer my list gets.)

Consider this: for the first nine years of our marriage, my wife and I did not have high-speed internet. Partly this was due to the fact that she was in med school and I was working fresh-out-of-college jobs that barely paid for the house we overspent on; partly it was the fact that we both had access to broadband at work and school, so putting up with dial-up at home wasn’t the end of the world. Then, for the four years she was in residency, when we were still just covering costs and I quit my jobs to be a stay-at-home dad, we stuck with dial-up but I did not have easy access to broadband. I dreamed of the day when I could actually play games online or watch a short video, of not having to put everything on hold whenever my family sent me an email with five (five!) megabytes’ worth of photos. (I was, of course, the only one in my family still on dial-up, a fact which they never seemed to remember.)

Then we moved to rural Kansas, for my wife’s first doctoring job. We decided: it’s time. “Welcome to Broadbandistan!” my college roommate emailed. When you live in a small town, particularly when you move to one from a big city, the internet becomes your lifeline, your connection to everything else. I don’t know if I’d ever have considered living in a tiny town in the Midwest without a broadband connection. As Richard Powers put it in his novel The Echo Maker:

Now residents had a cage still more gilded: cheap broadband. The Internet had hit Nebraska like liquor hitting a Stone Age tribe–the godsend every sandhills homesteader descendant had been waiting for, the only way to survive such vacancy. … The Net: a last-ditch cure for prairie blindness.

And that’s the thing. I used to spend a good deal in front of the computer, but I didn’t waste a lot of time. When you’re on dial-up, it’s just not worth it. You don’t follow every link. You don’t go to YouTube. You get in, do your work, and get out, because every single image on some website you visit “just for the heck of it” is going to suck a few minutes from your life. Before broadband, I imagined that I’d be gaining back all those minutes I spent waiting for things to load. Instead, all that time (and more) has been eaten up, three minutes at a time, watching things like The Internet Is Made of Cats. What a broadband connection really speeds up? My rate of spending and my speed of distraction. And what it increases? The number of totally frivolous side-trips I make on the way to any particular destination. (Case in point: you want to know how long I spent poking around on Flickr for the perfect image for this post?)

I stay up late, after my kids and wife have gone to bed, catching up on my Google Reader, Facebook status updates and Twitter feed, to what end? I suppose somewhere deep down inside, I imagine that by spending a few more minutes reading tonight there will be less tomorrow. Aye, there’s the rub: there’s always more! The internet is never going to run out of things for you to read and see and do; people are never going to blogging or tweeting or whatever the next big thing turns out to be.

Even the media frenzy over the new iPad has got me thinking: what’s the big advantage of multitasking, anyway? Just do a search for “myth of multitasking” and see how many hits you turn up. Maybe, after all, it’s not such a great idea for me to be constantly reminded every time I get a new email, instant message, or tweet. Maybe sometimes I should let my cell phone go to voice mail if I’m in the middle of doing something. Maybe there are certain advantages to being something of a Luddite. Maybe Apple is on to something after all. (But not the name. That, everyone agrees, was a Bad Idea.)

I’m sure by now you’ve seen the recent Kaiser Foundation Study stating that teens these days cram nearly 11 hours worth of media into their lives every day. I’ll admit, China’s solution to internet addiction has been too extreme, but maybe “internet addiction” or even “media addiction” is something that we should start taking seriously. How do I model good behavior to my kids when it comes to media and the internet? Probably not by sitting in front of my computer every waking hour and racing to pick up my phone whenever it beeps. Maybe I need to go back to my pre-broadband habits: get online, do what I need to do, and unplug.

When’s the last time you sat down to read a book (or, heck, a blog) without simultaneously watching TV or listening to music or texting a friend? When’s the last time you went out for a walk without your cell phone in your pocket? When’s the last time you spent an hour doing just one thing?

Okay. Time to reel it in, because there’s only a few of you I didn’t totally lose back there with the cats video. Realistically, there’s no way I’m going to cut off my broadband. And, obviously, because I write for a blog called GeekDad for a site called Wired, I’m not going to encourage you to either. But I do think it’s a good idea, every so often, to narrow our interests a little. Pick one thing to do and learn to do it well. Stop responding to every little ping and beep that your digital devices make. Maybe I’ll turn off Adium and Tweetie while I’m writing. Maybe I’ll silence my cell phone more often.

Maybe if we all learn to singletask a little bit, our internet connections will feel more like a lifeline and less like a leash.

You know, I was going to include a link here to some things that help you singletask, but let’s face it: that’s really just giving you more distractions right now. Go directly to the next thing on your list. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200.

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jagger/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

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