Multi-Tasking & Solitude

A link from my daughter to an article on multi-tasking in the American Scholar prompts this post — or rather congealed it. I’ve been struggling with a life that has become so complex I wake up thinking about taking long road trips in a small car with impersonal motel rooms, or moving to a Tumbleweed House of 200 square feet. Calculating how can I reduce the size of my apartment so life will be simpler. Each pile of things, each object reminds me of tasks unfinished. Lack of focus. Ambitions unfulfilled. Good intentions failed.

And then I get up and start the race to fix my  body, get in shape, cure my brain, think faster, walk faster, be happy, get rich — all so I can do more. Do it all. Prioritization is still a task to be mastered. Another time consuming activity that demands a decision about whether to use a spreadsheet or a database. Remember pen and pencil, I ask?

But how to find the right list under all the piles of magazines and downloaded and printed out articles to read. The un-filed bills and notes of things to look up on the web. Piles of books read, but waiting for notes to be made.

Multi-Tasking and Leadership

William Deresiewicz’s Solitude and Leadership is a reprint of a lecture delivered to the entering class at the United States Military Academy at West Point in October, 2010. His subject was leadership, a connection that presents a view of multi-tasking that is apart from the usual modern angst of having too much to do, lowering stress levels, or wanting more leisure or family time. His focus is not that we try to do so many things we do none of them well, but that we can’t be leaders, of ourselves or others, unless we take time to reflect and find our own reality. This requires solitude.

Leadership & Solitude

Great books don’t reflect the conventional wisdom of their day, the kind you get on Facebook and Twitter. They were written in solitude and present ideas and insights that are revolutionary. “Without solitude—the solitude of Adams and Jefferson and Hamilton and Madison and Thomas Paine—there would be no America.”

Solitude is necessary to maintain the deep friendship of intimate conversation. “Long, uninterrupted talk with one other person. Not Skyping with three people and texting with two others. … Instead of having one or two true friends that we can sit and talk to for three hours at a time, we have 968 ‘friends’ that we never actually talk to; instead we just bounce one-line messages off them a hundred times a day. This is not friendship, this is distraction.”

Solitude is what is necessary to think about “doubts you aren’t supposed to have, questions you aren’t supposed to ask.”

And especially for speaking to future military leaders: “How will you find the strength and wisdom to challenge an unwise order or question a wrongheaded policy? What will you do the first time you have to write a letter to the mother of a slain soldier? How will you find words of comfort that are more than just empty formulas?”

The Multi-Tasks & Living a Long Time

I was pleased to read Deresiewicz’s account of a research study showing that even college students, our brightest and best young peak performers, do not function well when multi-tasking. I have always considered myself to be a good multi-tasker but at 68, I’m multi-tasked out. While some of the reason may be age, I don’t feel a similar decline in ability to think. While I do take on too many projects to complete in a live time, it isn’t because I take on too many projects. I’ve always had this many projects.

What has tipped my life over the edge seems to be that living a long time makes one’s life more complex.

I used to have two simple little children but children and grandchildren keep multiplying. With no further action on my part, I now have a big family. I have to have a calendar to keep track of birthdays — and I’m still not doing it well. What made me realize this truth in children was reconnecting with my best friend in high school who had her first child at 19 and now at 69 has great grandchildren who are in college. Family history and modern medical miracles predict that she will live to be at least 90. I can’t do the math on that many generations with the addition of her children’s and grandchildren’s spouses (and ex-spouses) and variations of 2-3 children in each constellation. I’m glad I stopped at two and started late. And am less healthy.

I no longer live in a single family home or an impersonal condominium where my friends lived elsewhere and we arranged to meet on a regular basis. I live in a cohousing community, a place where we not only know each other’s names but most of our problems as well. Our pantheon of cohousing relationships continues to grow in every household with marriages, births, adoptions, and one single person moving out and 2-3 moving in. I can’t even count the people as I think about this. I actually do have a database to keep track of them. And they knock on my door and walk in. Welcome, but a very different relationship  to the world than I had 20 years ago.

Finding Solitude

All these people — family and friends — are in addition to my own writing projects, art projects, and just plain interests — film, books, history, polities. I was once warned that as one grew older life would become more narrow as I stopped teaching, children became independent, friends died, and so on. I’m finding it hard to find that solitude that I was warned against as loneliness.

Deresiewicz may have pointed his finger well for me, reminding me that enforcing some solitude on myself is what I need to sort it all out. In addition to long road trips and tiny houses, I’ve been fantasizing about becoming a hermit. An odd old lady in a black dress that never opens her door or speaks to anyone. Walks hunched over so she doesn’t have to make eye-contact and lives in a cave with her books.

William Deresiewicz was formerly an associate professor at Yale University, sat on their admissions committee, and a noted and controversial critic and essayist. This article is too long and a bit rambling but worth the effort. It would be nice if the American Scholar was better edited  but it is easier to skim the online version than it is the bound version that does not lie flat.