How to Best Use Your Time – Multi vs Single Tasking

[Warning – LOTS of text!]

Recently a debate has flared up between those that see the societal value in the skills of a multi-tasking individual, and those that see it as a drain on our personal intelligence. The rise of the “single-tasking” movement is relatively new – within this past decade – after years of employers almost demanding most hires be capable of balancing (or juggling as it feels) many problems at one time. Even one of the quintessential hallmarks of a college education is to prepare young people with the rigorous demands of balancing various homework, project, and studying responsibilities in a 16 week time. Which is the number 2 reason why students drop out.

But single-tasking as almost become a movement within its own right. It is the anti-establishment cause to bring humanity back from the brink of losing itself in the 24/7 instantly attainable sources of info that technology gives us. We tweet, we post, we read, we listen to podcasts, we research, we order groceries, we tweet again, we answer phone calls, we send work emails, we check facebook, we find a recipe for dinner, we tweet again….and so on. For heavens sake I have 18 tabs open on Google Chrome (7 for this post). Why? Because of the need to be able to do it all, at one time.

Earlier this month, Matt Ritchel of the NYT posted an article about how our obsession with gadgets (iPhone, iPad, Blackberry, PCs) is costing us valuable brain power. Ritchel goes into the science behind why we instantly react to the pleasures of immediate “opportunities and threats”. He identifies the “Myth of Multitasking” through the research of various upstanding Universities in the field and how participants in multi-tasking studies preform. All this is also done through the lens of one average size San Fran family with a slight addiction (you be the judge) to technology.

The Wall Street Journal’s Nicholas Carr penned a piece asking “if the internet makes you dumber” the day before Ritchel’s. Carr’s research finds that while the human brain does adapt to these new technological processes –

“The cellular structure of the human brain, scientists have discovered, adapts readily to the tools we use, including those for finding, storing and sharing information. By changing our habits of mind, each new technology strengthens certain neural pathways and weakens others. The cellular alterations continue to shape the way we think even when we’re not using the technology.”

Carr is the author of “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains”, and really nails home the argument against multi-tasking as the eventual degrading of our mental capabilities in an almost one day fatal way. Its hard to read these posts and “try” to concentrate on just the article on the internet after knowing how it has practically rewired our neural pathways.

But this debate is having ripple effects all through out the internet. In May, the Harvard Business Review posted Peter Bergman’s “How (and Why) to Stop Multi-tasking” citing his six epiphanies after forcefully focusing on one task at a time. All have great points that bring out the real value in just concentrating on the task at hand such as “my stress dropped dramatically” and “made significant progress on challenging projects”. This is where the human resource aspect really comes in for nonprofits. The sector basically asks each working member of an organization to wear many hats to compensate for the lack of complete staffing due to overhead costs that many grants do not cover. For example, you will generally find that an employee working in grant writing/fundraising, is also working on community outreach. Or that a program administrator is asked to complete research needed for grant writing.

Bergman’s colleague David Silverman wrote last week “In Defense of Multi-tasking“. It highlights the socially needed aspect behind balancing various different responsibilities at once that makes work efficient in greater ways than thought. Relevant to the world of nonprofits is how do you responsibly balance those previous tasks in employees? Many jobs now ask how comfortable you are with multi-tasking in light of research showing it degrades mental functioning on all tasks involved. But as Silverman points out, this “ability” allows projects and problems to be moved along more quickly and efficiently towards its end products that previous technology has not allowed us. So would this be something nonprofits – more pressed for money/resources than other sectors – be willing to trade off for?

Ben Carlson from the Atlantic Wire thinks so, for businesses at least. His favorite quote from Silverman being

“The truth is, we need multitasking as much as we need air”

bringing home the overall argument for the need to multi-task in our lives.

And this is a topic for personal blogs too. With the advent of such anti-tech-stress websites such as Zen Habits and their arguments to not becoming a workaholic through those gadgets of the family in Ritchel’s piece. Another blog (I now follow) also pointed to kicking the multi-tasking habit with the help of websites such as Zen Habits and following a personal Happiness Project (to keep stress down).

So where should you stand when managing projects, staff, or daily routines in the nonprofit world? After all that is the point to this blog, is to bring up ideas and points to nonprofit beginners (and elders). As I posted in the Atlantic page, I personally think there has to be some balance in how we educate people to be aware of the gift that technology brings us. There is a time and place for both multi- and single-tasking. You cannot live by either rule as strictly as you can others (as not texting and driving), but must be aware of the faults and benefits to using each in a situational basis.

For nonprofits those situations change rapidly and often on a daily basis depending on the work your organization does. At times a single focused mindset will be needed to craft a strong grant proposal. Other times massive juggling acts will be needed as employees are asked to evaluate programs, manage budgets, and set calendars for events for a exec staff in a conference (when your staff is only 4 people).

I for one will be thinking about these positives and negatives in a new light, and looking forward to this debate in a new way.

4 thoughts on “How to Best Use Your Time – Multi vs Single Tasking

  1. sarah (the SHU box) says:

    an interesting, well-written post. thank you so much for the link — and the helpful comment on my post! i think you brought up interesting points about multitasking being useful in some contexts, but not others.

    • nickdicolandrea says:

      thank you Sarah. I found that I was multi-tasking way too much at home when trying to accomplish things in my day. In the end I accomplished very little. Focusing however on one task at a time when I have more unstructured time has definitely given me more clarity to each project. And don’t mention my post! I was happy to write it! Get it? 😀

  2. val says:

    very smart post! I think you need to credit the wonderful person who referred you to blog though, especially since she was forcing you to multi-task while attempting to write a post about the evils of multi-tasking =)


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