Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Ants and the hamster wheel

"I am soo busy"..."incredibly swamped this week"... "up against a deadline but I'll get back to you you.." How many times do you hear similar responses when simply greeting a friend, or inquiring about her general well-being? It seems to be a default response these days, even surpassing the almost autonomic reply "fine."

Busy-ness is so pervasive, it seems to have become the norm. But it is not particularly new. 160 years ago Henry David Thoreau observed "It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?" 

Good question, HD! Many of us still lead lives that resemble those of insects. Why? Are we really, truly, as Merriam Webster defines "busy," engaged in action: occupied? I suppose to some extent we are: we are always breathing, so are engaging in that action. But on a less cellular level, many of us keep ourselves busy, otherwise occupied, as an act of volition. This way we can shield ourselves from the tough job of examining our actions--and by extension, our life choices--too closely. We are good parents if we are busy shuttling our kids from piano to soccer. We are good citizens if we go to lots of meetings for our civic association and faith community. And we are good employees if we don't have time take a lunch hour, much less sit and actually think about how best to solve the latest work-related challenge! No wonder we have no time to do the housework, cook anything, or weed the garden.

The second part of Webster's definition of "busy" is being in use. I wonder what use we are being as we run along our self-constructed hamster wheels, making a lot of noise and engaging in action. What are we accomplishing? Are we actually getting anywhere? Essayist Tim Kreider named this state  The Busy Trap in a piece he wrote for the New York Times Opinionator blog a few months ago. I have remembered that piece, and have tried not to fall into that trap myself since I read it. But it has been a challenge! I have concluded that refusing to be "busy" is nothing less than a counter-cultural act. It is a challenge you feel viscerally, like trying to swim upstream or walk up a down escalator.

Thoreau tells us busy-ness was the norm in the 1850s, but since his time our level has increased geometrically. Just think: in the past 16 years we have gone from handheld PDAs for a few who apologized "I need this for work," to smartphones that have become lifelines for everyone over the age of 14. These devices are meant to help us organize our small tasks so we don't fall into The Busy Trap. But if we fail to master our tools, and let them master us, we are just creating different ways to engage in busy behavior. More smokescreens to hide what really matters, more reasons to escape to a superficial world where the squeaky wheel gets the oil and the underlying reasons for the squeak go unexamined until the whole thing falls apart.  

As Socrates said "The unexamined life is not worth living." So take time to look at your life. Look for purpose. Check to see that the road you are following actually leads somewhere. And if your wheel is squeaky, get off, oil it--and ask yourself "Do I really need to jump back on?"

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Too clever by half
Right-sizing. It is something we all need to do whenever we speak publicly. It is also easier said than done.

Many of us fill up more time saying what we mean than we should. Often this is because we have failed to carefully plan what we need to say and end up just spouting what we want to say. Listeners notice. I was at an "intimate meet and greet" for a political candidate recently and noted that I was not the only one checking my watch as the second, then third, speaker went on... and on.... The crowd grew restless, but as it was mostly a group of older (baby-boomer) supporters, we were all polite and listened. Though we did shuffle. And glance longingly at the bar and buffet!

The speech was, for the most part, a list of good things this candidate had done for us. But we didn't need a laundry list or a litany. We had already been inundated with mailers -- real and electronic -- that had a sizable accumulation of facts. And if we hadn't managed to read those, we could surely visit the website. We came to "meet" the candidate because we wanted to get to "know" him: the person, not the policy. We wanted to be spoken to, not talked at. Maybe have our questions answered, or spend some time engaging with him in small group conversation. Really, the last thing you should do in front of people you want money from is bore them. The longer a speaker drones on, listing his accomplishments, the more we disengage, even if we have benefitted from those accomplishments.

This applies to all of us. When we know we will be asked to present, to speak, even to report, we need to boil our message down to its essentials. Be succinct: "short, sweet, and to the point" as one of my clients says. She should know: as a teacher she learned long ago how to engage a captive audience. Take a page from the playbook of expert artists who know when to put the paintbrush down. Listen to Konstantin Stanislavski, who told his actors at the dawn of 20th century Moscow, "Less is more." And to the 17th century Frenchman, Blaise Pascal, who ended one of his Lettres provinciales (Provincial letters) with " I would have written a shorter letter but I did not have the time."

You get my drift. 'nuff said.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Multi-tasking, or feeding our addiction?

Multi-tasking: the bane of modern existence! I have long thought successfully juggling multiple tasks simultaneously was a myth; thankfully, science disproving that myth is gaining traction. There have been reports trickling out for years debunking the effectiveness of trying to do too many things at once. My teen-aged son could probably tell you how exactly many reports on the radio and in the newspaper there have been, because I think I pointed out every one to him! I even blogged about how multi-tasking is eroding our powers of concentration, taking us farther and farther away from the Sherlockian ideal of laser-like focus that can solve impossible puzzles.

Of course, we have always been able to do some multi-tasking: ask any parent. Making dinner while supervising toddlers banging on pots and pans or pre-teens doing homework are examples that leap to mind. But there is a relatively new type of multi-tasking that involves concentrating on accomplishing a specific tasks within a specific time frame, accompanied by interruptions from one or more electronic devices. This is not only dangerous (texting while driving, anyone?) but congnitively disruptive.

Yesterday I was laughing out loud as I listened to NPR's Science Friday story on The Myth of Multitasking while making sweet and spicy walnuts. Yes, I multi-task this way, but only if the recipe is simple enough to not demand my undivided concentration. (Before the advent of podcasts and online transcripts, however, I did have a few kitchen mishaps while absorbed in radio stories!)

Dr. Clifford Naas, Professor of Communications at Stanford, and author of The Man Who Lied to His Laptop was being interviewed by host Ira Flatow. Dr. Nass basically said that those who claim to be good at multi-tasking are fooling themselves:  "It's a little like smoking, you know, saying, I smoke all the time, so smoking can't be bad for me."

He said that we know the brain is remarkably elastic, and that it actually changes as we become more accustomed to this rapid switching between tasks (which is what multi-tasking really is). His research had led him to this conclusion: "People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted."

As a mom, a teacher, a coach, and a communications consultant, I can vouch for the truth of this statement. People who habitually multi-task take much longer to learn something new and to internalize it to the point where they can really use it. It takes longer for things to stick.

It will be interesting to see how generations of digital natives will deal with this concentration deficit. Many folks are enthralled with their devices to the point of addiction, according to Dr. Nass. This is not good: "We, so far, have not found people who are successful at multitasking. There are some evidence that there's a very, very, very, very small group of people who can do two tasks at one time but there's actually no evidence that anyone can do even three."

So, if you have been telling your children, colleagues, friends, to put down that smart phone so they can pay attention, only to be greeted with "I can do two things at once," you were right. Here's the proof. You're welcome