On Multi-Tasking and Self-Improvement

I woke up early this morning to find the ground covered with snow, and little hint of the oncoming dawn. A quick shower, a bagel, and a short dog walk later, and I was hurrying out the door and on my way to work. The -10C wind whippoorwilled the dry flakes against my checks. I bundled my scarf tighter around my neck and pulled my aging fedora down a trifle lower, hunching my shoulders together in an effort to keep warm. I paused near the bus stop, fingered the bus pass in my pocket, and then walked onwards down the main strip. It’s a day for self-improvement.

My life lately has been little except waking up, working a long day, taking care of my sons, doing a little bit of work around the house (we’re still in the process of setting up after the big move), and then collapsing into bed for a few hours’ sleep before waking up again. Rinse and repeat. There seemed to be little time for relaxation, yet alone for something as potentially time-consuming as personal or professional development. A glance at my bookshelves reveals some 30 or 40 books I want to read in the near future, and my someday/maybe lists have been displaced by next action lists so long that I’ve had to break them apart by priority as well as context. There just isn’t enough hours in the day to do anything besides those tasks related to basic obligations. Or is there?

I remember hearing some guru on radio a decade ago, spitting out statistics concerning the need for people to focus. He mentioned one in particular: a study at some major US companies found that people trying to multi-task were 36% less efficient than those who didn’t. At the time, I laughed at this. I’m a multi-tasker, I reasoned, and I get plenty done — obviously, that statistic doesn’t apply to me. Over the years, though, I’ve learned that there are different types of multi-tasking. Flipping back and forth among related tasks, for example, can be fairly easy and often quite illuminating. Jumping from project management to creative tasks to accounting, on the other hand, tends to really slow me down.

There tends to be a difference, though, when it comes to multi-tasking and self-improvement. The humanists, and Stephen Covey (see his 7th habit, “Sharpen the Saw”), break down self-advancement into the areas of physical, social, mental, and spiritual. It turns out that you can do many of these things at the same time.

My prime example, and one I do twice a day now, is to walk to and from work (about 40-50 minutes walk, either way) and listen to audio books on the iPod. I could take my bike or the bus, but the former precludes me from wearing headphones (that would be irresponsible, in traffic) and the latter leaves me feeling lazy. (Well, that and the fact that my local bus doubles as the high school bus, filled to capacity with boisterous teenagers who enjoy pulling each others’ fingers.) So I walk to work, rain or shine, snow or sleet, with Plato, Shunryu Suzuki, BBC/CBC documentaries, David Allen, Stephen R. Covey, Seth Godin, Dale Carnegie, sundry industry podcasts, or other speakers buzzing in my ear. Every now and then, when I want to remember something, I haul out my pen and an index card, and jot down a note. In effect, I’m combining physical improvement with mental and spiritual improvement.

When I’m in the office, I touch base with my colleagues as much as possible. While I certainly can use email or IM, I usually take the time to pop my head in, say hello, ask about family or a point of common interest, and then get to the project at hand. I learn more about my work mates, get good professional advice, and do social development to boot. As I tend to be an introvert, it’s important for me to make a concerted effort to break out of my shell, and work on my social self-improvement. Combining it with other tasks makes perfect sense in this context.

In university, an English study group (of which I was a part) would jog around campus while discussing Yeats and Byron. When I was a member of the medieval-oriented Society for Creative Anachronisms around the same time, I remember discussing armor making, history, heraldry and other topics while we beat each other over our helms with extremely heavy rattan swords (quite a work-out, that was). A business networking group I joined some years ago would meet in the local gym, and we would discuss strategies and economics while on the treadmills and stairmasters.

Of course, none of this would be possible if time is ill-managed, but it’s important to allocate some time every day or two to sharpen our saws, to improve as individuals, lest we stay static, mired in the mud, and depressed about our lack of movement. Think about what you can do to improve yourself, and multi-task if you can. It’s not that difficult, once you think about your options.

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