The Multitasking Virus and the End of Learning? Part 2

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In this continuation from Part 1, Josh Waitzkin further explores the “multi-tasking virus” and learning. At the end of this post, he also responds to readers’ comments and elaborates on his own experience.

Bio: Josh was the subject of the book and movie Searching for Bobby Fischer and an eight-time National Chess Champion in his youth. He also holds a combined 21 National titles in addition to several World Championships in martial arts, and now trains hedge funds and other companies in high-end learning and performance psychology. I became friends with Josh after reading his book, The Art of Learning, which presents his learning strategies and approach to skill acquisition.

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I know what it is like to be disengaged. In fact, the crisis that played a large role in ending my chess career was rooted in becoming disconnected from my natural love for learning.

Throughout my youth, I had been a creative, aggressive chess player. I loved the battle, and wild, dynamic chess felt like an extension of my being. Then, in my late teens a coach urged me to play in the opposite style, his style of quiet, positional, cold-blooded prophylaxis. Instead of cultivating my natural strengths, he boxed me into the cookie cutter mold he knew. In time, I lost touch with my intuitive feeling for chess, and without an internal compass I foundered in the swells of fame and high-pressure competition.

I see myself in the eyes of so many kids today. Too many primary, elementary, and high schoolers are being boxed into the mold of conformity required by big classes, competition for grades, tests with multiple-choice questions.

The first grader who leaps to his feet when he figures out the math problem is diagnosed as ADHD and medicated to sit quietly with the class. Young learners have immense pressure to perform, to get good grades, but no one is listening to the nuance of their minds. They feel suppressed, they are suppressed, and by the time students get to college, they have become disconnected from the love of learning. Then they are asked to read 1000 pages in a week and skimming is the only solution. Many of the students who actually were engaged in the Gandhi lecture, the ones who wanted to learn more than to shop, were taking notes on their computers in a frenzy, researching events online while Dalton described them, typing every last word of the lecture. But Dalton had already supplied them with a detailed course packet with all the relevant dates and facts. His classroom is an environment for reflection, introspection, and letting resonant themes sink into your being. Unfortunately, to these college students, the notion of delighting in the subtle ripples of learning is almost laughable. Who has the time?

The societal implications of this educational crisis are huge and the issue must be addressed creatively.

We cannot afford to lose a generation to apathetic disengagement. Part of the responsibility lies in public policies like No Child Left Behind, the standardized tests that are turning education into a forced march, and a culture that bombards us with so much stimulation that it is difficult to know what to focus on. But part of the burden also lies with parents, teachers and coaches, and with students themselves. I recently tried to persuade two smart 11-year-olds to give up video games for three weeks. One agreed to the experiment and also agreed to send me a description of how the process felt. The other simply couldn’t imagine life without the PSP, even for a day. Here was an eleven-year-old self-proclaimed incorrigible video game addict!

This story has a happy ending. In the final month of classes, Dennis Dalton discussed the issues of multi-tasking with his students, and many responded. Last week when I went back to hear the final lecture of Dalton’s Barnard career, there were only a few kids surfing the internet—nearly all the students seemed riveted. Many told me they were relieved to have turned off their computers and relaxed into listening. A number of my old classmates came, and afterwards we threw a party for our teacher. After four decades inspiring college minds, he has decided to nip apathy in the bud by teaching younger kids. He will start with high school, but Dennis Dalton, one of our culture’s greatest minds, dreams of teaching kindergarten.

Afterword from Josh:

Thanks to all of you for the powerful responses. I want to address a couple of the issues raised.

We obviously live in a world that bombards us with information, and we feel the need to respond to stimulus as it comes in. The problem with this is that we get stretched along the superficial outer layers of many things. I believe in depth over breadth in the learning process. Let’s say we have three skills to learn. The typical approach is to take them all on at once. It is much more effective to plunge deeply into one, touch Quality, and then transfer that feeling of Quality over to the others. A martial artist, for example, should internalize one technique very deeply instead of trying to learn 10 or 15 superficially.

This approach engages the unconscious, creative aspects of our minds, and we start making thematic connections which greatly accelerate growth. It is also important to point out that deep presence is required for a state of neural plasticity to be triggered—our brain does not re-map effectively when we are skipping along the surface.

As for Jose’s question—“How do you remain focused all the time?”—you don’t. It’s useful to build triggers for the zone, so you can slip into it at will. Then, once we know we can attain a state of intense concentration, we are free to let it go and recover.

I learned this lesson in my late teens/early twenties trying to stay concentrated for 8 hours a day, two weeks at a time in world chess championships—I would burn out. When I started taking mini breaks, my endurance and quality of focus surged. Stress and recovery should be our rhythms, and physical interval training can be an excellent tool for improving mental recovery. One of many problems with multi-tasking is that the frenetic skipping leaves little room for relaxation, and thus our reservoir for energetic presence is constantly depleted.

Tim, now I think it’s important for us to home in on the root of the problem. Multi-tasking, in my opinion, is just a symptom of a broader cultural disconnect that emerges from too much rigidity and too little creativity in our educational and corporate worlds. If we love what we are doing, odds are we will want to focus on it. So the solution is two pronged—help people discover the love, and arm them with strategies to zone in when they want to. The second I addressed above. The first, I will tackle below:

The path to mastery and to engagement is highly individualized—this is a truism that much of our educational system ignores. Those who succeed at the elite levels of any discipline have built relationships to learning around subtle introspective sensitivity. They understand how their minds work, and both cultivate strengths and take on weaknesses through their unique natural voice. They have learned to open communication between their conscious and unconscious minds, and construct repertoires around moments of creative inspiration. They have built triggers for their peak performance state, learned how to funnel emotion into deep focus, turned adversity to their advantage as a way of life—and they have done all of this in a manner and language that feels natural to them. That is how they seem so unobstructed, so fluid…they are just being themselves. Like children.

My road from innocence to alienation to a renewed childlike love for learning is the catalyst for my writing, my educational nonprofit, and my commitment to helping kids shine. As parents, teachers, and coaches, we must reach children when they are young, nurture their natural curiosity, help them understand their minds. Teachers have a responsibility to listen first—is a child auditory, kinesthetic, or visual? Are they naturally extroverted or introverted? What excites them? What gets their creative juices flowing? How can we take that unique potential and help it grow? How can we help our child enjoy learning instead of being paralyzed by external pressures?

In my case, I had to let go of a life’s work and start over. It wasn’t until I left chess behind and became a beginner again, meditating, studying philosophy and psychology, and ultimately taking on my second discipline, Tai Chi Chuan, that I began to regain a feel for the art within the learning process. I had to release myself from the desperate need to live up to the expectations of others, and in its place grew presence to a natural creativity that had been smothered by baggage. I started discovering connections again, chess and the martial arts became one in my mind, and I could transfer my ideas, my feeling of Quality from one to the other. Learning became an expression of my being. After years of slogging, I was being true to myself once more. Hopefully, the lessons gleaned from the painful end of my chess career can help others avoid similar pitfalls—and perhaps my rediscovery of a passion for learning holds some solutions to the crisis we face in our schools.

A note for teachers and parents: I am researching the effect of video games on young minds. If you think it might be a healthy experience for your kids, please ask them to give up video games for two or three weeks, and write me about the experience at TheArtofLearning(at)gmail(dot)com.

Thank you!

-Josh Waitzkin


For more: Josh at the Googleplex in Mountain View, CA. Length: 50 minutes

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71 comments on “The Multitasking Virus and the End of Learning? Part 2

  1. @Josh

    “On your other point— I find that learning gets more enjoyable the more I am challenged, as long as I don’t get pushed dangerously past the breaking point. When things are too easy or way too hard in the classroom, kids disengage. A love for learning involves finding the middle way on this navigation—and we have to be able to enjoy sweating a little.

    Right. I think the concept of finding a balance between “overtraining” and “undertraining” is key–something I picked up from the book, Toughness Training for Life, by James E. Loehr, and which I’ve read read other supporting evidence for in educational contexts

  2. I liked and disliked the article.

    I didn’t like the rant about videogames because it changed the tone of the article from borderline insightful and interesting to a descent into a brief rote-repeated summary of the view of videogames from the perspective of who did not grow up with one in his hand.

    I really want to learn more about the focusing concept, and the perils of multitasking, but that was quickly glossed over, with no real explanation given as it was assumed we all agreed and he was just repeating it all for us to hear.

    How do you get focused? How do you stay focused on a project until it’s finished? I usually start on one assignment, and wake up ten minutes later at digg.com because I had gotten excited about a new idea and forgotten that I was trying to focus.

    How do you focus on a slow speaking speaker?

    Just some questions from the ignorant.

  3. Josh and Tim: Thank you.

    It’s great to hear these book names thrown around, it’s great to see these communities form. (I got here from ZenHabits in fact, I read both feeds).

    Yes we are failing our children in the manner we teach them. But honestly, we are mostly failing ourselves in the way we treat and teach ourselves. I’ve been telling this to people these same things for years. But at an administrative level, at the highest levels, there has been no interest in generating anything other than worker drones (now at their appropriate levels of mental capacities).

    This isn’t a minor problem, it’s a failure of agreement at a societal level.

    And video games are not the key. Bombarding kids with bad video games is no better or worse than bad TV or “bubblegum books”. Reading 100 different Nora Roberts novels isn’t going to make you the next Hemingway any time soon. Of course, playing Brain Age or DDR is clearly going to have benefits.

    This isn’t an ADHD problem or an “information overflow” problem. It’s a boredom problem. Most kids spend most of their time inefficiently at school, but it’s not like their parents are doing much different.

  4. Recetly I had to replace my dead PDA, and had the following insight.

    I think that the current trend to add entertaining features to the newest PDA’s is more of the same trend to provide distractions to what used to be devices whose sole purpose was productivity.

    When we don’t know what it is to either focus in the moment, or over a period of months on something we love, then we don’t learn what it feels like to be really productive.

    Somehow, we have gotten productivity confused with convenience. I was surfing a Blackberry forum the other day and asked the question “Are you more productive because you have a BlackBerry? Why?” Someone responded — “yes– because I can check email on the train home.”

    It was a real non-answer, but that’s the direction PDA manufacturers are heading i.e. towards greater distractions, and less of what I’d call real productivity.

    Distractions vs. productivity — that’s the unnamed battle that is underway in the MTV generation. It’s impossible to accomplish much by bouncing from one distraction to another simply because nothing really gets built over time.

  5. I remember old truisms like “A stitch in time beats nine” and “A thing worth doing is worth doing well,” and I wonder what has happened to them. I work with several multi-taskers on a regular basis, and what I’ve observed is that both they and those who have to work with them quickly become multi-half-taskers. I think there are two basic causes for our situation today: insecurity and self-delusion. Insecurity is the root cause.

    When we look at a classroom full of kids surfing the net, instant-messaging and buying shoes, our temptation is to blame the technology. But these are the same kids who had to change their French lessons from Tuesday because soccer practicing was starting and they couldn’t do Wednesdays because they already had piano but if the piano teacher could see them on Friday then they could take French on Monday because they could move their tennis lessons, at least until track started again and then… I run into children like this all the time (I work at a language school), and it’s not that they can’t sit still for five minutes that is the problem. The problem is that the whole society is caught up in the idea that we have to have and do everything or we’re missing something, and we labor under the self-delusion that if we do enough things poorly, we’ll be well-rounded and versatile, as opposed to simply being crazy. People love to point to the internet, instant messaging and video games as the problem here. But the real reason kids get hooked on these technologies so easily is that they work just like their real lives only 1) they’re faster and 2) the kids have the feeling that for once they’re in the driver’s seat – they have greater immediate control over the ways in which they’re going to be overstretched.

    I’m starting to see stay-at-home moms who are too busy coordinating their kids’ schedules to pay attention to the kids. The streets and shops are filled with kids crying out, “Ma, look! Look, ma!” but mother is too busy networking – discussing car pooling arrangements or the best summer camps with another stay-at-home mom – to pay attention. Dad brings his Blackberry to the Little League game so he can physically leave the office before seven. And then we’re surprised that our kids can’t figure out what’s worth paying attention to and pay attention to it?

    The second issue here is self-delusion – the delusion that you can have it all, and that you should! It feeds the first problem – of insecurity – because people start to think they’re shortchanging themselves, their families or their kids if they try to set limits. And once they get in the rat race, they’re too busy trying to keep up to ask themselves if they’re really enjoying it or getting anything out of it. Likewise, in the world of work, the multi-taskers commend themselves for always working on something, but are afraid to slow down to find out 1) if any of their projects are actually finished, 2) if those projects were done correctly and 3) whether the sum of those projects is actually building toward a larger goal. They’re too busy for that, and if they routinely let things slip through the cracks we should cut them some slack in recognition of how much they’re doing – or at least seem to be doing.

    In the past few years, I’ve learned that one of the greatest things life can give us is the things we’ve missed out on. I am a lover of languages and used to be forever looking at two or three languages, which tended to vary from month to month. At the time, I was afraid I’d miss out on Dutch or Chinese or Mongolian or whatever so I would try to squeeze in a little more time here or there to superficially glance at this or that. I didn’t know how much I was really missing out on until I dropped back to maintaining a few and only learning one. With the extra focus, I feel a real connection to what I’m working on now. I’ve noticed in work as well that when I give something more attention, I can radically improve results in that area. I think we miss out on a lot in work and in life when we try to see how much more we can do, rather than how much better we can do.

    I think there’s one other bit of delusion tied to insecurity in here, and that does relate to the computer. But again, it’s not the computer itself, but how we relate to it. In an era of instant communication and where computer automated tasks seem to happen instantly, we have developed the delusion that it’s the machine, not us, that does the important stuff, and the insecurity that there’s something wrong with us if we don’t answer our messages and give the computer input as fast as things happen on screen. We forget about garbage-in/garbage-out, and get the sense that the value is not in the thinking that goes into what we type in, but in the speed with why that typing is acted upon. In the next few years and decades, we’re in for some rude shocks as we discover that with all the communications we’ve completed and data we’ve gathered what we have is not a clearer picture of what we’re doing and how it relates, but so much data that no one knows what it means and so much communication that no one is sure precisely what has been communicated or agreed upon.

    Fortunately, the human species is adaptable. This is one of several articles I’ve seen of late on the problems of multi-tasking, which means that the smart set is already starting to get it. In another fifteen years, simplify won’t be the mantra of back to nature types, it will be the new buzzword. And streamlining processes won’t be about cost-cutting, but about working out which data points are worth tracking and which one’s aren’t, even if the computer can make graphs of all of them in the blink of an eye.

  6. Tim,

    I read a lot and sometimes come across books that alter the actions of my life. Your book “4 weeks” is one such book.

    I am 43, have 6 boys, a beautiful wife, own a consulting company, live in a great city, have completed Ironman 3 times, am healthy, and am completely clueless about what to do next. Your book stirred up some brain matter that hasn’t been stirred in such a way for a long time. I have spent the last few evenings madly trying to figure out how to fold your concepts into my life.

    I will keep you posted on my progress.

    Thanks for being a builder.
    Mike in Edmonton

  7. You may also read an interesting article on Multitasking insights by Sw Dhyan Vismay

    An Insight Into The Perils of Multitasking
    8th December, 2005, Times of India, New Delhi
    by
    SWAMI DHYAN VISMAY

    Our life is comprised of two kinds of energy. When we observe silently and eyes closed, we notice only those activities we have control over. This is conscious energy with which we function cons-ciously.

    The other energy that operates in inner body organs and is not noticeable is unconscious energy. This unconscious energy is common to all living beings, as we are all connected to the cosmos through breathing.

    Animals, birds and plants breathe as we do without any control over this. So the pool of uncons-cious energy is common and we are given our share rhythmi-cally, as determined by the beautiful but chaotic rules of the cosmos.

    Buddha called these Dhamma. We don’t breathe, the cosmos breathes for us. Unconscious energy is multi-tasking. Don’t you see inner body organs of so many creatures functioning simultaneously?

    Conscious energy, however, normally, is uni-tasking. That is, it cannot do more than one task (action or thought) at a time. If you are reading this fully focused you may not have noticed anything that is happening near you.

    You can, on your own, see the speed and variety of thoughts in your mind at any time. You can also notice many of us shaking some body parts unconsciously while doing or thinking of something else.

    This non uni-focused state of an individual’s conscious energy demands additional energy which is stolen from the uncons-cious domain which in turn cuts short the share of energy of unconscious parts and builds up stress in those inner organs.

    Consider your body in anger. When your conscious energy drives your hazy-thinking-attention-divided-control-engine of the brain and so many outer body parts simultaneously, it is obviously multitasking.

    This requires more energy than can be supplied fully by the conscious domain. Therefore, it steals some energy from the unconscious domain which in turn tries to compensate by breathing more and by increasing heartbeats.

    In anger we stress the conscious-self and unintentionally stress the unconscious energy causing our breathing and heartbeat to become abnormal. If we are awake and fully alert we do not stress the conscious-self.

    When our cons-cious-self indulges in multitasking we get stressed, exhausted and irritated in addition to the pain we inflict on the inner body organs.

    These pains are noticed only in the long run if multitasking habits continue, in the form of a number of ailments. In fact, depression happens to the sensitive minds due to repeated indulgence of multitasking.

    Meditation is a tool for the multitasking humanity to free itself from what causes stress, anxiety, depression and a large number of other ailments. While meditating sit relaxed, close your eyes, observe the total comfort and state of your body parts and keep watching your breath. With every breath try to make it more easy.

    This focused and prolonged observation gradually makes you watchful of your breath which is an indicator of a stress-free mind-body.

    This practice, with a pious feeling for your surrounding, and love and care for the same, eventually leads you to immense peace and makes you liberated and fearless.

  8. @ Mike in Edmonton – Mike, I also live in Edmonton and am trying to figure out how to implement all of these great ideas into an habitual lifestyle. It’s not exactly rocket surgery, so you’d think a couple of bright guys might be able to find a fit with our hectic Alberta lives!

    Tim,

    The energy and patience you’ve put into both this project/book/blog is immensely appreciated. I sometimes have a difficult time believing that you are sharing such great advice on living REALLY well, so freely. Then I remember, you sold it as a book…good for you.

    Josh,

    Thank you for the energy you’re placing in young minds and the growth of a real, productive culture. I know, had I started school 10yrs after I did, I’d have been pumped full of coma inducing drugs that would surely have stripped me of my creativity and my soul.

    Upon reading my old report cards, they contrast starkly with the real life experiences I’ve enjoyed. Grade 4 for instance, C’s and a D, yet mom told me in confidence after a Parent/Teacher Interview, that she was told that I had Grade 10 Comprehension and Grade 11 Spelling abilities. In post secondary, I flunked a couple of time-filler courses, yet was conditionally accepted into Mensa, based on the outcome of one more exam. I’m sure my parent’s money would hev been lost to the bookies had bets on my future been waged when I was young.

    Gentlemen, I commend your efforts in your endeavours to shape the world, nay, anti-shape it, in the benevolent manner you’ve already displayed. I believe my role in our coexistence is to do what I can to keep growing, thinking, learning and loving these 83 spins around the sun as much as is humanly possible…so I’m gonna get to that, while you two get to yours.

    Thank you,

    Ted
    31 spins down, 52 to go

  9. I recently discovered the Pulse smartpen from Livescribe, and it has tremendously helped me better engage in my college lectures. The pen records what I write and here and saves it for either instant review or for much later. I can either use the pen and paper, or digitally store everything on my computer and then use it with the software that comes with the pen.

    Anyways, I thought it would be cool to let other interested students in on the Pulse smartpen.

  10. Josh and Tim- thank you for talking about this! I am especially connected to your statement,
    “If we love what we are doing, odds are we will want to focus on it. So the solution is two pronged—help people discover the love, and arm them with strategies to zone in when they want to.”
    Whether we’re helping children to fall in love with learning or empowering women in business, we’ve got to help people not only find their passion, but hold on to it as well. You can only hold on a passion or love for something when you get a chance to really spend some time on it (with it, around it…), develop your gift and see some fruits from it. That comes from being able to focus! I love this post and look forward to passing to others, including women in business who really need to learn to stop multitasking and start focusing! Thank you.

  11. Thanks, Tim, for introducing me to Josh. I like what he says about focus and the fact that we´ve got to love what we´re learning. But what really resonated with me is when he said teachers need to listen first. We´re about to start transforming how kids who´ve been excluded from mainstream schools are taught in the UK and the first principle is that teachers can´t begin to teach until they´ve mastered understanding the kids. We think we´re onto something that can revolutionize learning. I certainly hope so and will let you know our results!

  12. Thanks for the great post! When I was in school, I would sigh at the bored, impassive faces of the students listening to a lecture. Learning is supposed to be fun, engaging, and fulfilling…not that I am too thrilled about going to school everyday, but there are just days when materials in a text or words in a lecture leaped out at me, leaving a dent in my mind. I would say “wow! this is very interesting! and it actually have something to do with me!” In fact, learning has everything to do with yourself. You are the one learning after all. You will make the choice of whether to make use of that knowledge.

    I could only nod at your observation of the two boys who played video games. It is true, and many many kids today are becoming addicted to different form of entertainment, whether it be TV, computers, gaming systems, MP3 players, cellphones etc. It annoys me to see teenagers listening to their Ipod or text messaging while their parents are talking to them. They are “disconnected” from their surroundings.

    I went to a private high school in northern California, in a small city called Ukiah. It is located inside a Buddhist monastery and the majority of the students lives in the dorm. The school, called Developing Virtue Secondary School, is famous for its strict codes. We cannot, at anytime during our stay in the school, have cellphones, mp3s, or computers. We can only use computers at home. We also have limited internet and only accessible on school computers. The internet blocks out facebook, myspace, youtube, and such sites used for socializing. The school wanted us to concentrate on our studies instead of playing games, listen to music, or chat with friends. For the four years I spent there, I realized there are so much more going on around me and so much to do when I’m not in front of my computer. WIth the long abstinence of internet, I can control my usage and overcome the addiction.

    I felt lucky to have gone to that school. I made me see how dependent most people are on their cellphones, computers, Ipods and gameboys. Without it, they would almost seem lost. We need to connect with each other more, have real conversations, send REAL mails, give hugs and kisses….

    • Beneath that mild-mannered exterior, Josh is riveting. You continue to be a nexus of fascinating people with uncommon insights and vital information. I’m researching single vs multitasking now, and–as usual after reading a 4HWW post–I’m off in several promising new directions. See you on the flipside!

  13. Re: Disengagement and video games and crackberries/laptops, etc.

    I made a funny observation the other day while sitting in the student lounge. The place was packed, but as I peered over the shoulders of crackberry users and laptop/wi fi users, a large number of them were on social networks or chatrooms.

    A roomful of living, breathing people not interacting… all on social networks ‘e-socializing’ while ignoring the ‘live’ people surrounding them.

    I mentioned it to someone next to me. He looked around, chuckled, and then went right back to his online chatting. End of our conversation.

    It was an eye-opening realization.

  14. I forgot where I read this, but I am a believer in the mind can only focus on one thing at a time. An experiment that was suggested in the reading was that if you are emotionally upset, close your eyes and try to stand on one leg. If you focus on the upset, you lose your balance, Focus on your balance and you temporarily forget your upset.

    I’ve used this little trick countless times to center myself and regain perspective when upset or aggravated and it has always worked for me.