Christians Can't Multitask

Jan 25, 2007 |Brett Harris, Alex Harris

The distractions of technology can dull our lives, hamper our productivity, rob us of quiet thought and keep us from demonstrating Christ's love.

Let's face it, our generation multitasks constantly. Chances are some of you won't even finish this article without checking your email — while others are already listening to music or texting a friend.

The fact is, though the corporate executive has long epitomized multitasking, it has more and more become a characteristic of the rising Generation Y — especially when it comes to media consumption.

A recent Harrison Group study reports that American young people spend more than 72 hours per week using electronic media, including the Internet, cell phones, television, music and video games, but many experts argue that the actual amount of media consumption is much higher because of our ability to interact with more than one medium at a time. Other studies show that teenagers are packing up to 44 hours of activity into a 24-hour day by doing multiple things at once — nearly two days worth of "stuff" experienced in a single day.

But in an era where it has become routine to conduct six IM conversations, watch TV and Google the names of last season's "American Idol" finalists all at the same time, we can't afford to unquestionably embrace the multitasking lifestyle technology provides.

Think about it: We are the first generation to grow up with high-speed, wireless Internet access and the first to widely use cell phones. It's easy to get caught up being the "Early Adopters" of technology's latest offerings and forget that eight years ago most home computers weren't even linked to the Internet.

Even in its infancy the incredible power and pervasiveness of modern technology requires us to step back and reassess our generation's proclivity for multitasking. As life gets faster and faster and technology continues to advance, we've got to stop texting long enough to ask ourselves whether we're really more efficient when we multitask. How does this juggling show affect our productivity, our thought life and our relationships?

Productivity: Doing Less By Doing More

Many of us enjoy the rush of doing many things at once because it gives us a feeling of control and productivity, but studies show that our split attention is only serving to hide our diminished efficiency — we're living in an illusion.

"People often take pride in their ability to multitask," writes Dr. Edward Hallowell in his book CrazyBusy, "but often they do none of their tasks as well as when they focus on one at a time."

In fact, a 2001 study conducted at the University of Michigan reports that 20 to 40 percent of a person's productivity is eaten up by "task-switching," the time it takes to mentally re-engage when shifting from one task to another.

The Apostle Paul writes in Colossians 3:23, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men." This idea of being singly focused is the secret of true efficiency.

Of course, this doesn't mean we should never multitask. Our ability to participate in multiple activities at once is unrivaled by any other creature in God's creation. It is a gift from God, just not one to be abused, and definitely not an excuse for giving God any less than our best.

Instead, we need to understand that both our ability to focus and our ability to multitask are extremely valuable. We should never practice one at the expense of the other. Sadly, our culture's busyness, where the average employee switches tasks every three minutes and is interrupted every two minutes, seems to be crippling our ability to focus. Studies show that most employees are unable to focus on any one task for longer than 12 minutes.

As unfortunate as that is, we can realistically acknowledge that not every little thing we do requires 100 percent concentration. The Apostle Paul's encouragement to "work with all your heart," when read in context, clearly exhorts us to honor God by giving appropriate attention to our tasks. But simple things, like chewing gum, do not call for the complete absorption of our mental faculties.

The challenge is to get our priorities straight so we do not allow our culture's crazy pace to rob our jobs or our studies of the attention they deserve.

Thought Life: "A Place of Quietness With God"

In her recent New York Times opinion piece, Carolyn Curiel wrote, "We think of America as a sleep-deprived nation, but we are becoming deep-thought deprived, too. A closed door does not stop interruptions, because we are packing the weapons that can shatter concentration or quiet contemplation. Our fingers are always on a button." Curiel concludes that the multitasking life creates an often-distracted mind.

Even before computers, cell phones and other wireless technology, the radio was placed in homes and then cars, helping to fill the dead air that accompanies housework and long rides. But now, modern technology has pushed our escape from quiet thought to dizzying new heights.

"No one seems to want (and no one can find) a place for quiet," wrote Francis Schaeffer, "because when you are quiet, you have to face reality. But many in the present generation dare not do this because on their own basis reality leads them to meaninglessness; so they fill their lives with entertainment, even if it is only noise."

Such escapism makes sense for non-Christians, yet most Christians act the same way — escaping from meaningful thought through the distractions of technology. Yet, as Schaeffer writes, it is Christians who can dare to face the realities of life unclouded.

"We do not need these things to fill the crannies of our lives," he concludes, "in fact, we should want to face reality: the glory of the world God has created and the wonder of being human — yes, and even the awful reality of the Fall and the tragedy of marred men and women, even our own flawed character. We are not to be people of escape. The Christian is to be the realist. To face reality as born again and indwelt by the Holy Spirit is the Christian's calling."

Of course, the problem is not with technology — Schaeffer was addressing these same issues long before Steve Jobs ever dreamed of the iPod. Rather, the problem is the way and the frequency with which we have chosen to use technology.

Because of that, the solution is not to give away our laptops, but to make sure that our consumption of media is supplementing our thought life, not distracting from it; that it is providing opportunity for more incredible quiet moments with God — not keeping our minds constantly busy dealing with new articles, IM conversations and song lyrics.

Relationships: True Love Meets Multitasking

Imagine a movie where the noncommittal boyfriend finally gets down on one knee, looks up into the eyes of his sweetheart and solemnly intones, "Baby, to signify how important our relationship has become to me, I am now removing one of the earpieces from my iPod."

Soaring orchestral music rises in triumph as he reaches to his ear, never taking his eyes off of her, and in a radical display of commitment removes the glistening piece of white plastic and places it carefully in his pocket for later use.

After several moments of silence, while his sweetheart allows the last strains of Coldplay to fade from her own iPod, she returns the display of devotion. Then, they kiss. This is Hollywood at its finest.

Of course, we laugh at this fictional "Hollywood Couple" because their expression of love is so obvious. "The most basic sign of affection is attention," we think, "everyone knows that!" Yet, aren't we really laughing at ourselves? After all, it's our generation that is setting records for how long and how completely we can withhold this basic expression of love.

Jesus said, "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." Do we stand out from the rest of world because of the way we show love for others? Or, are we just like the rest of our generation — so connected that we're disconnected — distracted from the people God has placed in our lives?

These are hard questions. But we must challenge ourselves to answer them honestly and then respond appropriately to what we see in ourselves. For some of us this might mean setting limits on when we can get on the computer or not listening to our iPods when we're with other people.

Whatever it is, we can expect that it won't be easy — or glamorous. There won't be any soaring orchestral music when we remove our earbuds. Oftentimes we won't even feel like loving the people around us and will have to cry out to God to help us love them from the heart.

And if that's not hard enough, God usually doesn't answer that kind of prayer immediately. He seems to prefer that — by still obeying His command to love others, even when we don't feel that love — we act ourselves into a better way of feeling, rather than "feel" ourselves into a better way of acting.

But, you see, that's all part of what the Bible calls the obedience of faith — trusting God's wisdom and goodness enough to obey Him, even when we don't feel like it. And hard though it may be, getting better at trusting God and loving people is well worth the workout.

The Verdict: Christians Can't Multitask

If we acknowledge that trusting God and loving people are the main stuff of our Christian lives, then we will want to evaluate the prevalent practice of multitasking in that light. The purpose of this article was to identify some of the pitfalls of multitasking in order to prepare us to do just that.

Upon examination we've seen that multitasking often hampers our productivity, robs us of quiet thought and keeps us from demonstrating Christ's love. Those negatives obstruct us from fulfilling clear commands and principles of Scripture — like working with all your heart, leading productive lives, meditating on God's Word, praying without ceasing and loving others fervently. We can see that multitasking is generally more of a hindrance than a help to our personal and spiritual growth and development.

In a sense, we need to wake up and admit that multitasking is a myth after all. It does not deliver the efficiency of the maximized potential it seemed to promise. Its layering of disconnected thoughts have not helped us think any better, clearer or deeper. Multitasking has made it easier to escape the real pressures of living with real people, but has not equipped us to experience or give real love.

Short on delivery, we may want to keep multitasking on a short chain. Not afraid of the potential of technology, we need to recognize its dangers and set up structural helps and limits to keep it in its place. We should love to use media and technology as tools for God's glory, but even more than that, we should desire to live wisely, choosing to do one worthwhile at a time, very well. As Jim Elliot challenged his generation, so we challenge you: "Wherever you are, be there 100 percent."

Copyright 2007 Alex and Brett Harris. All rights reserved.

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