Plain old reading: An antidote to the multi-tasking world?

I’m finding it harder to concentrate on any one task for a long period of time these days.  I’m pretty convinced that’s because so much of my time is spent multi-tasking.  Between Twitter and Facebook and the hundred-plus emails I get at work and the thirty or so I get at home every day, I feel like a wave of distractions is always falling on the shore of my focus.  I do something for ten minutes, and then I get bored and want to do something else.   Obviously, I can’t afford this.  I’m a writer and a technology exec.  Both jobs require periodic actual focus for long periods of time on a single topic.  In other words, I need to think.

There’s plenty of research that backs up this observation of my own behavior.   There is a 2009 article in the Stanford University News that starts out “Attention, multi-taskers (if you can pay attention, that is): Your brain may be in trouble.”   From about a year later, there’s  a great blog post in the Harvard Business Review by Peter Bregman on “How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking.” that claims multi-taskers can be up to 40% less efficient.  And just in case you feel that anything from 20019 and 2010 is too old to be true, another search including the word 211 showed a lot of productivity blogs saying the same thing:  To increase efficiency at work, don’t multi-task.

For me, the more I try to multi-task, the less I seem to be able to just sit.  I noticed the changes in myself when I noticed the books I’m picking up are fast page-turners in the urban fantasy world rather than the sweeping and more difficult science fiction and fantasy books I used to love.  I’m actually finding it hard to sit and really spend time falling into any written world that lets me have any time out to wander away. So that’s what I’m doing to re-train my brain.  Sitting down and reading for a period of time.  I used to read for hours.  A few weeks ago, I realized that with any books that have thoughtful substance  I read for ten minutes and then got up to do something else.  So I’m sitting down with a timer.  Kind of like meditation or exercise, it takes a while to settle in each session.  But I think it’s worth doing, and since reading is something I love, it’s easier than forcing myself through calculus.

I’ll report back if I can stop multi-tasking long enough to think about this problem.


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