Looking at my elder daughter (almost 2.5 years old) play is an amazing experience. She can be completely absorbed by something- like changing the clothes of her doll, or arranging a party for all the stuffed animals, and in a second she would lose interest, jump to another completely different activity and focus on it. And do it again in 3-4 minutes. And again…
We tend to think of ourselves as capable multitaskers – we all do so many different things throughout the day, mostly in parallel. Who hasn’t talked on the phone while checking emails, surfing the web or updating his social media status? Even at home we jump from one activity to another, always juggling. We tend to look down at youngling and their inability to perform multiple tasks in parallel coupled but what we perceive as incredibly short attention span (why can’t they sit still for more than 5 minutes?).
But truth is we’ve got this all wrong. True- kids don’t multi task, at least not in the way grown ups do. They focus on one activity, and one activity only, complete it (or lose interest) and move on. So while they don’t perform several activities at once, they have the ability to concentrate to an extreme on the single activity they are engage with now. And they achieve this extreme concentration very rapidly, almost instantly.
And this is what we’ve lost in our race towards multi-tasking. It is true we are required to perform many activities at the same time, some of which were inconceivable until very recently (driving and texting a friend half a world away for example). But what we find more difficult to do is concentrate on the task at hand.
Take writing this blog post for instance. I’ve started by opening a new word document, than wrote the first paragraph, then an email notification appeared so I’ve checked that email, my phone buzzed so I read some Whatsapp correspondence, I looked up an image for this piece so I got stuck on google image search for a while. By the time I’ve got back to the document I’ve lost my train of thought and had to stare at the screen for several minutes just to remember what it was I wanted to write.
And this process is both time consuming and mentally draining- it is said that as adults we need about 15-20 minutes to achieve full concentration. Any disturbance throws us back at square one. When it comes to creative work it’s even more extreme- some demand absolute solitude an quite in order to be able to create.
But kids? All they need is 10 seconds of playing with something new and they are fully absorbed, to the degree they can’t even hear you when you call them. And what seems to us as short attention span is simply a result of their intensity- they invest so much mental and physical energy into their endeavor that after what seems to us like a short time (which could be very long for them) they are over it and ready to move to the next one.
Us adults? We just thing we are doing many things in parallel, but in fact we are no better- simply jumping from one activity to another and by the end of the day we are surprised at how tired we are and how little we’ve accomplished (mostly the mundane tasks, which are in essence maintenance activities, nothing more).
So when people brag about their ability to multitask, I just smile and think of my kid playing at home. I Wish I could be more like her and be able to gain immediate focus at the task in front of me. But since I’ve lost this ability I’ve had to learn ways to focus on the activity I’m trying to complete- from removing all nuisances, to working in very late or early hours of the day (when there’s little distractions).
But the most important thing I’ve learned from her is that you simply can’t force it- if she’s not interested in doing something she simply won’t commit to it. Similarly I’ve learned that I can’t force myself into focusing on creative activities (like writing)- I need to grab the inspiration when it hits me and try to use it there and then.
And I don’t bother about multitasking anymore. I know it’s futile. I rather do 3-4 things well during the day than finish with the feeling of exhaustion and frustration of having accomplished nothing. And if I have some spare time, I’ll go and watch my daughter play. It is inspiring on a parental and a professional way.