Phil Simon, who is a Bulldog’s best friend and is a good friend of mine, recently blogged Channeling My Inner Bulldog: The Case for Stubbornness, in which he described how the distracting nature of multitasking can impair our ability to solve complex problems.
Although I understood every single word he wrote, after three dog nights, I can’t help but take the time to share my joy to the world by channeling my inner beagle and making the case for hyperactivity—in other words, our need to simply become better multitaskers.
The beloved mascot of my blog post is Bailey, not only a great example of a typical Beagle, but also my brother’s family dog, who is striking a heroic pose in this picture while proudly sporting his all-time favorite Halloween costume—Underdog.
I could think of no better hero to champion my underdog of a cause:
“There’s no need to fear . . . hyperactivity!”
Please Note: Just because Phil Simon coincidentally uses “Simon Says” as the heading for all his blog conclusions, doesn’t mean Phil is Simon Bar Sinister, who coincidentally used “Simon Says” to explain his diabolical plans—that’s completely coincidental.
The Power of Less
I recently read The Power of Less, the remarkable book by Leo Babauta, which provides practical advice on simplifying both our professional and personal lives. The book has a powerfully simple message—identify the essential, eliminate the rest.
I believe that the primary reason multitasking gets such a bad reputation is the numerous non-essential tasks typically included.
Many daily tasks are simply “busy work” that we either don’t really need to do at all, or don’t need to do as frequently. We have allowed ourselves to become conditioned to perform certain tasks, such as constantly checking our e-mail and voice mail.
Additionally, whenever we do find a break in our otherwise hectic day, “nervous energy” often causes us to feel like we should be doing something with our time—and so the vicious cycle of busy work begins all over again.
“Doing nothing is better than being busy doing nothing,” explained Lao Tzu.
I personally find that whenever I am feeling overwhelmed by multitasking, it’s not because I am trying to distribute my time among a series of essential tasks—instead, I was really just busy doing a whole lot of nothing. “Doing a huge number of things,” explains Babauta, “doesn’t mean you’re getting anything meaningful done.”
Meaningful accomplishment requires limiting our focus to only essential tasks. Unlimited focus, according to Babauta, is like “taking a cup of red dye and pouring it into the ocean, and watching the color dilute into nothingness. Limited focus is putting that same cup of dye into a gallon of water.”
Only you can decide which tasks are essential. Look at your “to do list” and first identify the essential—then eliminate the rest.
It’s about the journey—not the destination
Once you have eliminated the non-essential tasks, your next challenge is limiting your focus to only the essential tasks.
Perhaps the simplest way to limit your focus and avoid the temptation of multitasking altogether is to hyper-focus on only one task at a time. So let’s use reading a non-fiction book as an example of one of the tasks you identified as essential.
Some people would read this non-fiction book as fast as they possibly can—hyper-focused and not at all distracted—as if they’re trying to win “the reading marathon” by finishing the book in the shortest time possible.
They claim that this gives them both a sense of accomplishment and allows them to move on to their next essential task, thereby always maintaining their vigilant hyper-focus of performing only one task at a time.
However, what did they actually accomplish other than simply completing the task of reading the book?
I find people—myself included—that voraciously read non-fiction books often struggle when attempting to explain the book, and in fact, they usually can’t tell you anything more than what you would get from simply reading the jacket cover of the book.
Furthermore, they often can’t demonstrate any proof of having learned anything from reading the book. Now, if they were reading fiction, I would argue that’s not a problem. However, their “undistracted productivity” of reading a non-fiction book can easily amount to nothing more than productive entertainment.
They didn’t mind the gap between the acquisition of new information and its timely and practical application. Therefore, they didn’t develop valuable knowledge. They didn’t move forward on their personal journey toward wisdom.
All they did was productively move the hands of the clock forward—all they did was pass the time.
Although by eliminating distractions and focusing on only essential tasks, you’ll get more done and reach your destination faster, in my humble opinion, a meaningful life is not a marathon—a meaningful life is a race not to run.
It’s about the journey—not the destination. In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:
“With the past, I have nothing to do; nor with the future. I live now.”
Hyperactivity is Simply Better Multitasking
Although I do definitely believe in the power of less, the need to eliminate non-essential tasks, and the need to focus my attention, I am far more productive when hyper-active (i.e., intermittently alternating my attention among multiple simultaneous tasks).
Hyperactively collecting small pieces of meaningful information from multiple sources, as well as from the scattered scraps of knowledge whirling around inside my head, is more challenging, and more stressful, than focusing on only one task at a time.
However, at the end of most days, I find that I have made far more meaningful progress on my essential tasks.
Although, in all fairness, I often breakdown and organize essential tasks into smaller sub-tasks, group similar sub-tasks together, then I multitask within only one group at a time. This lower-level multitasking minimizes what I call the plate spinning effect, where an interruption can easily cause a disastrous disruption in productivity.
Additionally, I believe that not all distractions are created equal. Some, in fact, can be quite serendipitous. Therefore, I usually allow myself to include one “creative distraction” in my work routine. (Typically, I use either Twitter or some source of music.)
By eliminating non-essential tasks, grouping together related sub-tasks, and truly embracing the chaos of creative distraction, hyperactivity is simply better multitasking—and I think that in the Digital Age, this is a required skill we all must master.
The Rumble in the Dog Park
So which is better? Stubbornness or Hyperactivity? In the so-called Rumble in the Dog Park, who wins? Bulldogs or Beagles?
I know that I am a Beagle. Phil knows he is a Bulldog. I would be unhappy as a Bulldog. Phil would be unhappy as a Beagle.
And that is the most important point.
There is absolutely no better way to make yourself unhappy than by trying to live by someone else’s definition of happiness.
You should be whatever kind of dog that truly makes you happy. In other words, if you prefer single-tasking, then be a Bulldog, and if you prefer multitasking, then be a Beagle—and obviously, Bulldogs and Beagles are not the only doggone choices.
Maybe you’re one of those people who prefers cats—that’s cool too—just be whatever kind of cool cat truly makes you happy.
Or maybe you’re neither a dog person nor a cat person. Maybe you’re more of a Red-Eared Slider kind of person—that’s cool too.
And who ever said that you had to choose to be only one kind of person anyway?
Maybe some days you’re a Beagle, other days you’re a Bulldog, and on weekends and vacation days you’re a Red-Eared Slider.
It’s all good.
Just remember—no matter what—always be you.