The Opposite of Multitasking

I’m really enjoying the articles and podcasts of Farnam Street, where Shane Parrish is the writer/host. Here is an important lesson he offers: “Learning How to Think: The Skill No One Taught You.” This lesson is to avoid multi-tasking. Researchers have found that the more one multi-tasks, the less effective one is at learning. When you multitask, you are always restarting, never going down to the next level. I want to be someone unique, at least sometimes. I love the good ideas of others. I swim in them most of my hours on the planet. But at least once in a while, I’d like to step out of the echo-chamber and contribute something original to the world.

What I have found is that when I’m distracted by phone calls or texts even once every 15 minutes, I never develop high quality ideas of my own. That’s why I need to shelter myself in blocks of many hours when I’m writing. At least 3 hours at a time. That’s when good things happen.

On this point, Shane cites to “Solitude and Leadership,” an essay by William Deresiewicz:

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

This doesn’t mean that exciting original ideas don’t sometimes come out of no where, like a flash. Nietzsche commented on this in The Gay Science, 381. “The Question of being understandable”:

And to say it between ourselves and with reference to my own case, I do not desire that either my ignorance, or the vivacity of my temperament, should prevent me being understood by you, my friends: I certainly do not desire that my vivacity should have that effect, however much it may impel me to arrive quickly at an object, in order to arrive at it at all. For I think it is best to do with profound problems as with a cold bath – quickly in, quickly out. That one does not thereby get into the depths, that one does not get deep enough down is a superstition of the hydrophobic, the enemies of cold water; they speak without experience. Oh! The great cold makes one quick! And let me ask by the way: Is it a fact that a thing has been misunderstood and unrecognised when it has only been touched upon in passing, glanced at, flashed at? Must one absolutely sit upon it in the first place? Must one have brooded on it as on an egg? Diu noctuque incubando, as Newton said of himself? At least there are truths of a peculiar shyness and ticklishness which one can only get hold of suddenly, and in no other way, which one must either take by surprise, or leave alone.

I cannot depend on these intuitive flashes with any regularity (though they more often come to me while I’m walking or driving without any music or talking in the car). They do occasionally happen spontaneously, but never while I’m got my mind filled with anything requiring my active attention, never while I’m multitasking.

Most often, I get my most worthy ideas by brooding on them, as if I’m sitting on eggs.


Erich Vieth

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives with his two daughters.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Erich…. may you continue to hatch great ideas!

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