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Saturday, January 06, 2007

Doing more than one thing at a time

By Dick Hirsch
With most back in session after the holidays, I believe this would be an appropriate time to restate my position on education which is: you‘re never too old to learn something new.
That is a difficult policy to argue against, so I will refine it a little further. We all know there are many things we can learn from our children. How about that? There is a statement that should please at least one generation.
My assignment today, however, is to carry the mission of generational learning (and teaching) one step further and say that it can be both illuminating and satisfying to learn something new and important from a grandchild.
That’s how I learned about multi-tasking.
A few months ago, I placed one of my phone calls to my grandson, Jake. He happened to answer the phone and greeted me cordially, but I could sense he was preoccupied. I was right.
“I can’t talk right now,” he said. “Can I call you back?”
“Sure,” I said. “What’s up?”
“I’m just real busy,” he explained. “I’m multi-tasking.”
“Oh,” I replied. It was an unfamiliar term but I got the message and the meaning. “Go ahead. Call me later.”
As I hung up, I felt that flush of grandfatherly pride, pride in a student who is busy with his homework, probably loaded with problems in math, confronted with some of those awful problems, the kind where you’re on a train going 68 miles an hour and it stops six times, for four and a half minutes each, to take on passengers, and...oh, you know what I mean.
I had just recently read that high school students were being required to do an increasing amount of nightly homework, so I imagined he was probably balancing that math along with conjugating some Latin verbs and reviewing a chapter to prepare for a physics quiz.
As I mentioned, I’d never heard the term multi-tasking before, but it had a nice ring to it, and it was descriptive, a good phrase to know in a world filled with busy people, many of them doing more than one thing at a time.
It prompted me to think of my own situation and to ask myself whether I could be rated as a multi-tasker. I quickly decided I qualified, although I’ve been too busy to realize it.
Ask yourself that same question and I think you’ll discover that you, too, are a multi-tasker, as are most of your friends. Juggling various tasks becomes routine.
When I reflected on my career and my various activities, I concluded that I very seldom had the luxury of doing just one thing at a time. At this very moment, my desk is covered with unrelated files and notes, all of them concerned with different matters. On the left side of the desk, at the top of a pile of papers, I have always maintained a “To Do,” list, and when an entry is done, I draw a line through it.
After Jake said “multi-tasking,” I realized that although I was unfamiliar with the term I was very familiar with the routine.
He called me back later and we talked. I find that during such conversations I ask quite a few questions of my grandsons. Sometimes I even get answers.
“You were busy earlier,” I said, in case he had forgotten. “You said you were multi-tasking.”
“Right,” he said.
I told him of my own experiences, multi-tasking over the years in various situations. I wasn’t boasting, just trying to establish that there was a common bond. Then I inquired about the work that had been occupying him.
“No,” he explained, “it wasn’t homework. I was doing too many things. I was watching a movie on TV, sending instant messages to a girl in my class, and talking on my cell phone.”
“Oh,” I said. There wasn’t much else that I could think of to say. Yes, it was a little disillusioning to hear that he wasn’t busy doing his homework. But, on the other hand, it was reassuring to discover that he was nimble enough to handle those three things at the same time, and realistic enough to know that he couldn’t add a conversation with me to the mix. I’m just thankful he didn’t put me on hold.
The lesson is clear. Multi-tasking is a recent 21st century term, and while the meaning of “multi” is obvious, a precise definition of “tasking” remains unwritten.



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