Over the weekend I was raking leaves in my yard and enlisted the services of my sons, both of whom are under age 10, to assist with bagging. Five minutes into the task, it occurred to me that there must be an object lesson in this monotony somewhere, but off the top of my head all I could manage was, “This may seem boring, but it’s important.”
That sucked and I knew it. My forever-questioning eight year old underlined how badly it sucked by asking, “Why is it important?” to which I gave a reply as anemic as my first statement. “Because, if we don’t rake these leaves up now, tomorrow there will be even more on top of them.” Both looked at me with customary “so what?” stares.
So I continued raking up piles, and while trying to curb the kids’ instinct to jump into every pile (no matter how shallow), I was also instructing them not to leave a pile before they finished bagging all of it. After reminding them of this five times, it dawned on me — this was the lesson I was searching for. I quickly worked out a modestly confident way of stating the message and came up with something like, “Always finish the pile you’re working on before moving on to the next.”
Yeah. Good. I can work with that. On this lesson I could hook a few extras about the importance of completing your projects and the satisfaction of having finished a job. In a handful of minutes I’d worked out a platform from which to wax fatherly to my children for the next hour.
In addition to ensuring that my kids really, really wanted to get the job done as soon as possible, this day-in-the-life interlude also sparked some thinking on my part about just how far this lesson could be pushed. It certainly feels right to me, and I think at a practical level in my sons’ young lives it’s a useful lesson to learn. But later in life, when the mantra of multi-tasking drowns out the simple wisdom of finishing every project, I wonder if it will hold up.
More to the point, should it hold up? Are we a society that values finishing our work, or working on as many things as possible, finished or not? While few modern maxims are repeated as often as that of multi-tasking, particularly in the workplace, it’s debatable how effective a practice it is, or if we’re really ever doing it at all.
As this article reports, we never really focus on more than one thing–it’s a virtual impossibility; rather, we’ve become good at rapidly switching between tasks. Due to the human phenomena of mental interference, our brains have difficulty managing focus between two even extremely minimal tasks. We’re simply not wired that way.
This study adds to the argument by showing that the difference between learning while distracted–i.e. while multitasking–and learning while undistracted is more critical than we think. From an Ars Technica commentary on the study:
The authors set test subjects to performing a learning task within a device that imaged active areas of the brain. In some cases, the subjects were allowed to learn unhindered, but in others the subjects were also asked to keep a count of a series of tones that were played in the background. Learning the task unhindered caused the hippocampus to fire up, indicating a flexible memory was being formed. But if there was a distraction, the activity shifted to the striatum, indicating that only a habit memory could be formed under these conditions. These differences correlated with later test results on the same or similar tasks-those who learned without distraction were able to apply their knowledge to related problems with a significantly higher success rate.
So if you have to learn something that you’ll need to think through to apply later on, zero out the distractions. The flip side of this is, if you’re learning something that you only need to go through the motions to apply later on, being undistracted is probably not so important.
Inspired by these musings, and with fresh questions in mind, I am turning my attention to the work being done at the University of Michigan in Dr. Daniel Weismann’s Attention and Cognitive Control Lab, one of the epicenters of learning about our brain’s ability to control the focus of our attention. More on that another time.
For now, I feel good about my breezy fall day object lesson: focus on your pile and finish it before moving onto the next. It’s pithy enough, and opens the door for even more commonplace wisdom to emerge. There are, after all, always more leaves.