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

Posted on: May 26, 2008.

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

  1. This is powerful stuff.

    For the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to multitask work with other projects and ideas floating around in the back of my mind. But work & its related stress has always extinguished creativity for me – sometimes for hours, sometimes for days, sometimes for weeks.

    Thanks for the reinforcement that there is nothing wrong with experiencing learning and creating in your own way. And also for the reminder to focus on one thing at a time.

    Like

  2. Hi Tim/Josh

    Great post.

    I have a 1.5 year old baby boy and another one coming in August and my wife and I are very conscious about letting our kids express themselves creatively. And definitely not boxing them in to what the ‘system’ and others dictates that they should do. We want our kids to question the status quo and ask ‘Why’ as Tim suggests all the time.

    Side note – Tim, it was great meeting you at your Sydney book launch recently. I was the one who asked about lifestyle design case studies of parents with young kids under two.

    Keep up the great work evangelizing your message,
    Andrew

    Like

  3. Hey Tim –

    We met while I was working the door at the Red Poppy Art House the other night (I already passed your email on to Marina Lavalle, the singer that night, otherwise I’d have written you directly). After checking out your blog I laughed that we chatted only a little and never touched on your 4 hr week idea, since my path the last the last 5 years has been planning out my life towards pretty much the same goals (I’ve figured it out so far as a stock trader, something I originally started doing just for fun – now I can work from anywhere with fast internet, have no boss, travel when I want, enjoy my work more than anyone I know, and have some time to volunteer for things like the Red Poppy…and I never started with a fraction of the money most people think you need to be a trader). So far I’ve had a year long trip traveling through most of S. America, and most recently 2 months “working” in Brazil and Argentina. Anyways, I’ll be picking up your book to get some new ideas. Hope to see you around the Poppy again some time.

    – Brian

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  4. Very interesting stuff. I am appalled that surfing the web is done in class, but I sure know this is true. I have nieces that can not or will not do homework without a chat window open at least, and often 2. Heck how can you keep 2 conversations going and still be learning something? Obviously the task in the homework is just that, a meaningless task handed to them to just be accomplished. Having said that they are both honor role students all the time, so they are meeting the bar for sure. What does this say about high school education in general?

    But I struggle with this notion of no multitasking. I agree with engaging yourself fully in what your doing, but I feel I’m engaged in writing this right now. However before I sat down here I put a load of laundry in a fully automatic washing machine and it’s running in the background. I’ll need to move that laundry to the dryer, but if the clothes stay there till the morning no harm done so that task is not engaging me at all. I’m breaking the rules here and I pondered this while I read Tim’s book and saw that he schedules laundry. Tim are you still using a washboard and tub? If not and your like the rest of us owning fully automatic equipment why would you consider doing laundry a task that needs to be in a time slot?

    To me this is just like having a VA. If you give your VA a task is not the purpose so that you can use that time to do something else? You leave them be to get it done and schedule the results for you next e-mail reading time. My Maytag is is my LA (laundry assistant) and my ‘task’ is just to assign the work. Then I walk away and do something else – fully engaged – and schedule the changeover to the dryer for right before my next computer check.

    Now if I was standing in a tub squishing laundry between my toes while typing this I’d have to say I was wrong. :)

    Like

  5. Amazingly insightful 2 part post. Great work, Josh–thanks to Tim for introducing us to you.

    I see and interact with people every day who are living their lives on such a superficial level. Not as in vain, but as in lacking depth. Even the most important of tasks, such as driving or being with a loved one on a romantic date, is done at a disengaged level. Their minds are somewhere else. Sometimes it’s the crackberry, sometimes it’s their phone or the newspaper, but either way, they are checked out for all intents and purposes.

    I now turn the TV off instead of keeping it on as sound wallpaper. I don’t read while I eat anymore. I let my cellphone go to message if I am having lunch with a friend. I don’t have the radio on when I am writing my blog. It felt weird at first, like I was being lazy or reclusive, but it has helped my state of mind and productivity tremendously. I intend to do more similar corrections to cure me of multi-tasking.

    It will be interesting to see the results of your study for kids and video games. Great work!

    Together, we are stronger.
    Vicki Flaugher, the original SmartWoman

    Like

  6. In the last 2 years I have unplugged my cable service 4 times. Obviously that means at some point I signed up for it again. What would happen, since I love information even if it isn’t useful, is that I would fill up the DVR. My girlfriend jokingly, maybe not, that I would stay up late watching TV so I could clear room for more shows.

    I have been without cable for at least two months. If I want to watch TV I have to grab the cable coming out the back of the TV to get a decent signal. That is when you learn what shows were really important to you.

    I don’t know which came first, me dropping the cable or getting busier at work earning more money but they happened at the same time. I couldn’t imagine keeping up on TV while this has been going on. But if I had cable I know I would have been watching TV while I worked on the computer getting half as much done.

    In that case I thought I was getting the best of both world when I was engaged only slightly more in one than the other giving 60/40 attention. Being engaged in the moment has helped my retention and enjoyment of the things I do. I no longer have cable or internet at home diverting my attention.

    I love it.

    Like

  7. Wow! This whole thing is right where I am at. My wife and I were discussing today how we can simply focus in on our TRUE objectives and values. Probably going to axe Cable TV and possibly our home internet. Tired of feeling scattered and like I have partially done way to many tasks, without feeling like I really finished one. There is no fulfillment there. Thanks Josh and Tim!

    sjw

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  8. I wanted to first off thank Josh Waitzkin for answering my question. I found this not only a satisfying answer, but a very useful one. It is amazing at how much things get done better when they are given the right dose of focus. In conjunction with this I would also like to add that I have tried a few of Tim’s techniques on focus and have obtained great results. The key seems to keep a constant discipline on doing things consistently. Next, I also noticed that by chunking all phone calls on certain hours one gets better results. This I think is because when you are totally focused on just doing one thing at a time you are able to really give it your 100%. For example, when a friend calls me and I am checking emails, I rarely listen to 50% of what is said. I don’t do this out of disrespect but due to the lack of focus on the task at hand. Solution(for me): call them back and put your ringer on silent.
    Finally, these are just some thoughts that have flowed through my mind. These last two posts that Tim has displayed carry with them much more than meets the eye. Oh and , The Magic of Thinking Big by Dr. Schwartz, has been a huge help to me.

    I hope everyone had a safe and fun Memorial Day!!!!!

    ~Jose Castro-Frenzel

    Like

  9. This is really interesting and as a teacher I agree with many of the sentiments expressed. Multi-tasking is a bit of an alter in UK education and does lead I believe to a lack of engagement resulting in many kids totally turned off what we as teachers are trying to teach. I have a strong image in my mind of the kid who says ” I hate music” but as soon as they leave the music lesson on go those headphones… funny old world!!!

    Like

  10. Tim,

    Even after reading your book several time, a barrier bars
    us from letting go. How do we break it?

    Alexander,

    PS: enjoy Hellas, visit Meteora in the Macedonian region
    and Patra.

    Like

  11. How do you know that you wouldn’t have done worse if you hewed to your former untutored style of play?

    “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.”

    People with ADHD have a hard time doing math problems at the same rate as normal students, so I can see why this would be a problem–the rest of the class has moved on to the next problem.

    Learning is not typically enjoyable, it is more frequently a painful and arduous journey. “Enjoying learning” is often a sign that a student is not being challenged.

    Like

  12. Hi Tim

    Are you still in Sydney???? I just read your interview in the Sydney Morning Herald.

    Are you appearing anywhere?

    Here’s hoping,

    Michelle

    Like

  13. Is there not research to support the value of listening to certain music while studying or doing tasks?

    Or is there not the theory that the unconscious mind will absorb information deeply or perform outstanding work if the conscious mind in occupied?

    I work in a office that has occassion chatter and distractions…I find listening to trance on headphones while programming tends to make me more productive.

    Like

  14. Totally agreed that excessive multi-tasking could only jepordize the quality at work, especially nowadays many working environment try to drive you insane by push you to do many many things.

    We should be concentrate what really productive with good quality

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  15. @Steve – If someone enjoys learning they’re not being challenged enough? wow. someone’s got some baggage.

    Tim, I haven’t commented in months, but this post is central to one of my pet peeves – I waltzed my way through high school with honor rolls grades and complete boredom. I skipped more class than I went to my senior year and still graduated in the top 15% of my class (yes, I know I could have done better if I’d been there).

    I got better grades in my Advanced Placement classes than I did in easy classes like drama and home ec – I had more fun because I was being pushed and challenged. I enjoyed the challenge.

    Josh, thank you so much. I’m going to run out and get your book this week!

    Like