Single tasking my way through Washington, D.C.

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By Julia Hotz

9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., four days a week: when I first found out that these were the hours of my internship, I cringed. How the hell was I supposed to sit at a desk every day for nine motherf%$@# hours?!

Like the majority of my  fellow keep-27-tabs-open, read-the-Sparknotes-version, write-this-article-as-I-check-Facebook, ooh-look-a-cat Generation Y-ers, I have what we call … a short attention span.

This deficiency predisposes me to multitask, an act I tend to glorify by convincing myself that taking on multiple tasks (i.e. killing two birds with one stone) is economically efficient; why perform only one task if you can perform multiple?

Thus, when placed in an environment that requires complete focus and alternatively encourages “single-tasking,” I have typically been resistant.

In fact,  shortly after I received an offer to serve as an Education Policy Intern within the Center for American Progress (read: the people who have assigned me these painfully long hours), I asked the internship director if I could decrease my hours and  pursue an additional internship with another organization. I was extremely confused and disappointed when they said no.

Yet just four days into my internship at Center for American Progress (CAP),  I can honestly tell you I have not looked at the clock once, and there is not a second that I wish I were pursuing a different (or additional) internship.

In fact, the other day I came into work a half hour early, just because I was genuinely excited to spend the entire day on my research.

Even though my body is wholly sedentary during these nine hours, my brain is constantly active;  my internal conversations are filled not with questions of what am I going to eat for dinner or how I am going to spend my evening after work, but rather are 100 percent focused on the research (the  single task) at hand. Dinner options, post-work plans  and unopened Snapchats all become irrelevant in the context of truly engaging work.

Indeed, I would liken such dedication to falling in love with someone.

Just as developing true feelings for a person makes you totally blind to other potential suitors, dedicating yourself to your work (or to any single task) makes you forget the distractions.

Granted, this dedication (both in the context of dating and of working) takes balls;  committing yourself to one person or to one task implies that you regard such a person or task as the single most important thing or person.

Furthermore, dedication has become increasingly difficult in the context of our multitasking culture.

Phrases like “FOMO” (the fear of missing out), the popularity of BuzzFeed, the establishment of no-texting-while-driving laws, the emergence of a hook-up culture and the abundance of Adderall collectively exemplify our generation’s aversion to single-tasking.

Yet, before we accept our embrace of multitasking,  it is important to remember that this term originally referred to computers.

Engineers defined multitasking as the ability of a computer’s microprocessor to concurrently execute tasks. Hence, as mentioned earlier, it is tempting to view multitasking as a model of efficiency.

However, I’ve realized in these four short days at CAP that efficiency is far less important than quality, and it is almost impossible to maximize quality if you are preoccupied with efficiency.

This is why some of the most remarkable people were single-taskers. Emily Dickinson locked herself in her room for three years just to dedicate herself to her poems (many of which were not even discovered until after her death).

Thomas Edison worked a 12-hour day shift (and often continued into the night) before he finally invented the incandescent lamp. The Beatles played the same exact set for five hours a night, seven days a week, before they rose to stardom.

Therefore, unlike a computer (which produces the same output whether it is executing one task or multiple tasks), we have seen how humans produce higher-quality work when they are focusing on a single task.

This is not to say that having multiple interests is a bad thing, but, perhaps for the sake of quality, we should pursue one interest at a time. After all,  as Abraham Lincoln famously said, “Whatever you are, be a good one.”

Thus, other than learning a ton about education policy, the city of Washington, D.C. and what it’s like to be 21 (hint: it’s awesome),  my first week in D.C. has allowed me to recognize the value of single-tasking, the value of truly and wholly dedicating yourself to something you care about.

So, log out of Facebook, close your 27 tabs, find what it is you love and commit to it entirely. Minimize your efficiency and maximize your quality. You owe it to your human-ness to do so.

 

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