If Multitasking, You Do It Like Musicians.


If multitasking capability really exists, musicians must be the best multitaskers. Take, for example, the organ player in the Finale of the Symphony No. 3 from the French composer Camille Saint-Saens. He uses all his four limbs to play music on five keyboards – at the same time he is checking with the conductor in the mirror above – and also at times needs to peek in the written music in front of him – and he has to listen to the whole orchestra behind him to adjust to them so that they play together, in tempo, with dynamics and expression. Is there a space for anything else? I doubt it.

It is quite similar with singing drummers, or dancing and singing guitarists and other instrumentalists.

I am sure there are other professions, where a whole body and mind get involved in the activity, not leaving space for anything else. A total immersion.

What allows these professionals to be proficient in what they do, is a lot of previous preparation, training and practicing. And an ability to fully focus on what they do at the present moment. A minuscule distraction could ‘kick them out’ of the flow and cause a memory lapse, potentially leading to an artistic, or a more serious, disaster.

What all such professionals have in common is, that their effort targets only one final goal or outcome. In the case of the organ player it is to play the whole symphony at the highest possible artistic level.

On the other hand, many people try to multitask in a number of absolutely unrelated activities. Take, for a comparison, a driver who almost killed my kids getting of the school bus the other day. She was driving a car – an activity requiring driver’s full attention. But on top of that, she was eating and drinking coffee, apparently bough in the nearby Tim Horton’s coffee shop. She was also speaking on the phone not using the handsfree. And she was listening to the radio.

No surprise, that the driver didn’t even notice the stop sign and huge flashing red lights on the school bus. She was even surprised when other pedestrians were waving to make her aware of the traffic violation.

So while the organ player in the symphony uses four limbs, eyes and ears for only one purpose and is highly educated to be able to do so, the traffic violating driver uses her hands to drive the car, eat, drink, handle a phone, and at the same time gets distracted by the radio. The difference is quite obvious.

Therefore I don’t believe a multitasking is possible. If you are really trying to multitask, it can have negative impact on your health, relationships, stress level, memory, creativity and life in general. A research from the Stanford University confirms it too.

I don’t even believe that you can listen to music and do something else mentally demanding. And do it successfully. I know there are many writers, software programmers and coders, for example, who swear on using music as a necessity for their work. There are companies like Focus@Will, or Brain.fm, offering specialized “engineered” music for working professionals.

The problem is, that this is not about ‘listening’ music – they only hear it in short breaks in their thought processes dedicated to work. Music functions here only as a well organized noise impacting their mood – at best. And at worst, music is used as an aural insulation protecting from other distractions.

Although music works quite well for these purposes, its capacity is underused, if not misused. And it is still leaching on your mental energy, if you are trying to focus on doing something else.

Here is my fresh personal experience to support this point. I cannot write (or do anything else creative) while listening to music. This morning, some music playing in the background, just “stole” my budding creative idea. The idea wasn’t completely formulated and clear in my mind yet, but it was a good idea to start. Unfortunately music erased it before it got a chance to be fully formed. (The idea for this article came to me after I turned the distracting music off.)

This is a result of my ongoing testing how can someone listen to any kind of music when they need to focus on a deep work.

Yes, I am questioning this approach. Because at least for me, it doesn’t work. Today’s test confirmed this once again.

Sure, I am a musician, thus professionally biased. Because when there is music around me, I am listening, whether I want or not. Listening – not hearing!

Music definitely helps with physical activities. That was its function for thousands years and possibly one of the reasons why music exists in the human society. There have been work songs coordinating activities of sailors, farmers, builders, cowboys and other laborers. Music and rhythm help when you go out jogging or when you need a boost while working out in a gym.

Dancing is, after all, a great combination of music and physical activity.

But when working mentally – I feel music as a distraction. I can either listen, play or compose music. And I can write, think, read, discuss or talk. But I cannot play piano and have a discussion at the same time. I cannot write and listen music either.

So if I need something to block-out other aural distractions, I prefer the soothing sound of a water stream, or a summer rain. The reality is, that I don’t need it that much. My years in music taught me to focus fully and for longer periods of time on what I need to do. That is the advantage of listening to music and learning how to focus, instead of only hearing it.

Every musician would confirm, that practicing and playing an instrument requires full attention and focus. Without those, there is no development, improvement or collaboration, and one can hear pretty soon that he is just wasting time and energy.

Now, after reading all this, I want to challenge you. And challenge you twice!

First, I would like you to abandon the idea of multitasking. Try to separate your work from music. A quiet and peaceful workplace is often the best for great results. If you need to work in a distracting environment, use ambient noise instead of music. There is a plenty of apps and websites offering various soundscapes from fire, wind, water, forest and waves to the white of pink noise. Check A Soft Murmur, Noisli (my favorite is the Water Stream) and My Noise (my absolute favorite is the Crystal Stream).

Second, I would like you to reconsider your relationship with music, especially if you use it when trying to ‘multitask’. A good start would be, if you could dedicate only 20 minutes a week to listening music. Choose songs and compositions you like or you had been planning to listen for a while. Find a quiet moment – and just listen and enjoy.

And if you still insist on the multitasking, why don’t you try the better one and start playing a music instrument? Musicking mindfully will help you with improving your listening skills, your ability to focus and with releasing stress. And there are more benefits an active music making can bring to your life.

You can learn more about the benefits of musicking and also about how to start, here at Musicably.com


1 Comment

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