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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Can we walk and chew gum at the same time?

Can we drive a car and text a message to a spouse or friend simultaneously?

Multitasking is in the news on all fronts this week, especially in the Sinday N.Y. Times article on how 70 MPH texting is comparable to drunken driving.

There are superheroes like Tiger Woods, Hillary Clinton and Lance Armstrong who seemingly thrive on overextending themselves. The great majority however are swimming and sinking at the same time.

Josh Waitzkin,for example, was an eight-time National Chess Champion in his youth. He holds a combined 21 National titles in addition to several World Championships in martial arts. He now trains hedge funds consultants and other companies in high-end learning and performance psychology. His cross-transfer of skill acquisition is incredible.

In his book, "The Art of Learning" he describes his thoughts while he was watching his former college professor,Dennis Dalton, deliver his final lecture before retiring. For 39 years,Professor Dalton has been inspiring Columbia and Barnard students with his two semester political theory series that introduces undergrads to the ideas of Gandhi, Thoreau, Mill, Malcolm X, King, Plato, Lao Tzu. Waitzkin considers Dalton the most influential person in his life.

The iconic professor was delivering a riveting 75-minute discussion on the birth of Gandhian non-violent activism. Waitzkin describes his inability to stay focused on his idol's words:

" I found myself becoming increasingly distressed," says Waitzkin,"as I watched students cruising Facebook, checking out the NY Times, editing photo collections, texting, reading People Magazine, shopping for jeans, dresses, sweaters, and shoes on Ebay, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew, reorganizing their social calendars, emailing on Gmail and AOL, playing solitaire, doing homework for other classes, chatting on AIM, and buying tickets on Expedia (I made a list because of my disbelief).

"From my perspective in the back of the room, while Dalton vividly described desperate Indian mothers throwing their children into a deep well to escape the barrage of bullets, I noticed that a girl in front of me was putting her credit card information into Urban She had finally found her shoes!

"When the class was over I rode the train home heartbroken, composing a letter to the students, which Dalton distributed the next day. Then I started investigating. Unfortunately, what I observed was not an isolated incident. Classrooms across America have been overrun by the multi-tasking virus. Teachers are bereft. This is the year that Facebook has taken residence in the national classroom."

Students defend this trend by citing their generation’s enhanced ability to overachieve. Recent scientific studies refute their claims. Apparently the human mind cannot multi-task without drastically reducing the quality of what it is processing through the cortex. Proficiency is cut in half when the brain tries to absorb visual and audio input at the same time, according to Waitzkin.

Actually multitasking, the current research reveals,is the fastest way to mediocrity.If you want to do great work concentrate on one task at a time.

The Sunday Times article explored the misconceptions about multitasking, particularly as regards driving while texting.

The article cites the story of a very nice young man, Chris Hill,20. Mr. Hill,a diligent student with a reputation for helping neighbors,also took pride in his clean driving record. “Not a speeding ticket, not a fender bender, nothing,” he said.

Last September ,Hill was so engrossed in a cell phone call that he ran a red light and didn’t notice Linda Doyle’s small sport utility vehicle until the last second. He hit her going 45 miles per hour. She was pronounced dead shortly after.

The Times article cites a 2003 Harvard study estimating that cellphone distractions cause 2,600 traffic deaths every year, and 330,000 accidents that result in moderate or severe injuries.

However, the article suggests that Americans have largely ignored that research. "Instead, they increasingly use phones, navigation devices and even laptops to turn their cars into mobile offices, chat rooms and entertainment centers, making roads more dangerous."

The definitive book about this modern day problem is:

The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done
Dave Crenshaw
ISBN: 978-0-470-37225-8
144 pages
August 2008, Jossey-Bass

Some excerpts:

"There is an illusion. The illusion is that technology, cell phones, e-mail, faxes, text messaging and whatever else is curently "latest-and-greatest" makes us more productive.The reality, though, is that these things will only make us productive if we take control of them."

This is a lengthy post which I try to avoid. This is an important issue which has greatly affected my own life. I have a personal slant on it.

I believe seniors, especially super seniors (post 75) fall by the wayside because so many people who might normally be aiding them just don't have the time. The multitasking virus has taken control of their lives.

One the most difficult multitasking issues most human beings face at some time is the dual role of child and parent. While we raise our own children we are in fact still children who have parents. So by default we have a multi-task responsibility we wish we didn't have.

This issue floats beneath the radar right now but as the baby boomers inflate the ranks of the super aged a decade from now multitasking will no longer be an option.

No one ever said life was supposed to be easy.

PS: One of the most famous baby boomers,the indefatigable Tom Watson, did himself proud Sunday. I salute one of my all time heroes