I used to be a spectacular multi-tasker. Most women I know are. Unlike hunting and gathering, it is a capacity essential to child rearing that in all likelihood, most men were not required to develop. In the parlance of neurobiology, it was 'pruned' from their brains. I imagine that this is changing somewhat now. But to this day, I believe that God must have been a woman, because who else could multi-task well enough to create the world in only seven days?
Multi-tasking (indeed the world) shifted on its axis when I developed brain cancer last summer. My first surgery left me with extensive neurological damage. I was unable to walk without the assistance of a cane, feed myself, shower, go up or down stairs, write, type, or text. It was the little things that most surprised me. I expected that learning to walk again would be a big deal. I didn't expect that putting toothpaste on my toothbrush with my right hand, while brushing with the left, would be beyond my ability even to this day.
Months of extensive physical therapy followed and gradually, all areas began to improve. I fiercely rejected any suggestion that my brain might benefit from therapy as well or that it had suffered any cognitive deficits. And in truth, I can do my work as well as I ever have (minus the writing). But I quickly discovered that simpler, rote tasks evade me unless I focus on them. In short, I now have difficulty multi-tasking.
Ironically, it is the rote tasks that are most difficult. I simply cannot keep an idea in my brain while trying to tie my shoes at the same time. I am better with thoughts, as I find them more compelling, and have always lived a bit in my head anyway. So thoughts stick while tasks slip away. Keys, phone, gloves, notes; I am like a child with ADD these days.
I have become so exasperated by my inability to perform minor tasks that I've decided to try a new technique. I now mono-focus. When I know something is going to be hard, boring, or difficult for me, I frequently talk myself through the task, or at the very least, focus exclusively on the moment. It can be infantilizing to talk to your shoes, but the first time I did it, I managed to actually tie them. I can do up zippers now, and my physical therapy has become stronger, faster, and more efficient. The only way I can do this, simply put, is to stay in the moment. My attention cannot wander from what I am doing.
Needless to say, this is not easy for me (my children tease me that I could easily drive a car into the ocean because I forgot it was there), but it is working. And it has been a hopeful prospect within these long months of neurological rehab. Some things I do more slowly, and I have to focus more intently on boring tasks, which strangely gives them a different dimension. Everything requires close attention, and most tasks require more time.
I'm no Pollyanna. I'm not trying to find a silver lining in a bad situation (actually, I am), but my mono-tasking was born out of sheer frustration. And believe me, I would much rather be able to tie my shoes without thinking about it than to focus on them. But this enforced behavior has made me think about the way children develop and learn and the implications of multitasking for their brains.
Children's development occurs in an interpersonal context, a web of relationships and social and cultural connections.* When those connections are compromised, it is likely that the child's development will be as well. In addition, children need practical teaching from mentors, and perhaps most of all, parents or teachers, as they learn in "a zone of proximal development." Here the teacher is the expert, and children accomplish tasks beyond their ability through the teacher's scaffolding.**
In other words, a child's learning is dependent upon close personal relationships and expert instruction and attention from adults. From these relationships, the child develops the ability to focus, and eventually, the capacity to move his or her focus flexibly between tasks. The development of these skills, however, is dependent upon the child first learning how to focus intently on a single task. Kind of like my shoes and I.
Imagine a world in which children's primary relationships are with technology, and teaching is outsourced to a computer program online. Their development would look very different. Inevitably, to some extent, this is happening already. How many times have you walked into your daughter's room and seen her simultaneously on her computer, texting, reading a book, and looking up something on Wikipedia?
My children can do this because they straddle the old and new world with regards to technology. They are adept and expert users of technology, but they may be the last generation to be taught traditionally, as well. My friend and colleague Catherine Steiner-Adair, author of The Big Disconnect, argues that we need to protect our cognitive capacity to mono-task. It's like a muscle. If we don't use it, we lose it. We don't know what development will look like in the future, but we can't simply skip this step.
When doing the research for her book, Catherine interviewed hundreds of children and young people who acknowledged that they are not as adept at focusing on singular tasks as they know/admit they should be. If they are to live to their fullest potential, they need to develop this capacity. It is, essentially, mindfulness.
So consider mindfulness -- and on some level, a form of meditation -- to live deeply and within the moment.
And if you don't buy into the critical benefits of such a practice, just ask my shoes.
* Stern, D. N. (1985). The interpersonal world of the infant: A view from psychoanalysis and developmental psychology. New York: Basic Books.
** Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.