Creative Boredom

Computing has given us the useful word multitasking – “to schedule and execute multiple tasks (program) simultaneously; control being passed from one to the other using interrupts.”

The part of that definition that is usually ignored is the ‘interrupts’ — i.e. the processor is not really executing all tasks simultaneously; it is switching between tasks, giving the illusion of parallelism.

The same is true of multi-tasking in humans. It is an illusion.

Everyone seems to be trying to do more things simultaneously. Driving and texting, listening to music and reading, talking on the phone and typing, memorizing Latin verbs and writing on people’s Facebook walls — I could think of many other examples, but you get the idea.

It’s a bit like juggling. If you don’t drop a ball, it’s considered a success.

But work, school, socializing aren’t as simple as balls tossed into the air; they are activities that can be done with varying degrees of completeness and finesse.

Some people claim that they work better when they are trying to do three things at once — the more, the better.

The truth (and I am not talking about computers here) is this: doing two linguistic tasks simultaneously is not possible. Our brains can’t do that. You may think you are writing your essay and talking to your friend, but you are actually switching between tasks. And you are taking twice as long to do it.Thirty minutes of working on essay + thirty minutes of talking to your friend = two hours of real time. And the essay is probably crap.

Okay, I’m jaded. I’m tired of people saying that they’re listening to me while they have ear buds in both ears, or claiming that they are writing their essay while they are talking to their friend about last night’s game. It gets on my nerves to see people staring down at tiny screens as if their lives depended on the incoming message. I’m skeptical that people can actually think about anything while they are on four channels at once.

And when did it become so important to convey instant messages? Some do not believe it, but people used to drive in their cars or sit in geometry class without needed to take incoming calls. And people didn’t used to expect instant answers to every question. Usually, we had to wait. And think about it. “Anticipation” is a practically meaningless word when we never have to wait more than a few seconds.

We try to teach our students critical thinking, but it isn’t really a thing that can be taught like math or Latin. To think critically requires silence, time, and leisure. It requires waiting, and understanding that the best answers come after a lot of thought. Thinking about three or four other things at the same time doesn’t permit this kind of understanding.

There are points in writing a story where I have to stop and think. Sitting and staring at the screen, fingers on the keys, is not productive thinking for me. I could go read a book, call my mother, write a lesson plan, watch television, listen to music.

But doing these things just puts off the thinking I need to do.

When I really need to think, I go for a walk, fold laundry, bake bread, mop the floor. Multi-tasking? I guess you could call it that.

But thinking while jogging, or taking a shower, or washing the floor isn’t the same as thinking, talking, listening, reading and writing simultaneously. Those things slow down the thought process. Oddly enough, doing something with your hands, an activity that doesn’t require a lot of attention, actually helps the thinking process.

Boredom is a terrible thing, if you believe the people selling entertainment. They don’t want us to feel comfortable just sitting and listening to our own thoughts. They want us to feel restless, to seek new stimulation. The don’t want us to anticipate things; they want us to have them, so we can immediately want something new. And so we surf the web, flip channels, buy books we don’t read, download more songs.

But avoiding boredom is not my goal. Finding ways to let my brain idle and turn over ideas is what I want. I like silence. I turn off the radio when I drive so I can think. When I’m writing, the television is a distraction. I ignore the phone. If someone needs to talk to me, I might as well forget writing.

A lawyer I used to work for told me that she always asks smart people to do boring tasks because they figure out ways to do it more efficiently. People who have to entertain themselves by doing a lot of other things get the job done more slowly, and not as well. I did a lot of boring things while working for that law firm, but I got them done quickly, which gave me more time to bill to other clients. That made me a valuable employee, and it made my job more varied and interesting.

If we can only get things done by doping ourselves with music and text and television, we miss out on an important part of life: thinking.

But I don’t know how we can return to a world without these things. Our brains might evolve, but human evolution doesn’t occur as quickly as the evolution of microprocessors. We may learn knew ways to think, but more likely we will just redefine what thinking is. And ‘critical thinking’ will be as obsolete as my discarded Intel 386 processor.

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