iEngage: In praise of uni-tasking

A few days ago, I watched as my teenage daughter instant messaged with multiple friends, listened to YouTube clips, and did her homework – all at the same time.

Juggler (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A few days ago, I watched as my teenage daughter instant messaged with multiple friends, listened to YouTube clips, and did her homework – all at the same time. I was astounded by her capacity to do so many things at once.
But, in truth, for my daughter’s generation multitasking of this kind is almost an innate ability. It is a natural adaptation to an environment in which sensory inputs have expanded immeasurably, our to-do lists grow ever longer, and time itself feels like it has contracted.
The digital age has made multitaskers of most of us – even if not quite with the skill of our children. We all seem to be able to text/tweet/IM/email and engage in conversation (or drive?!) simultaneously. We are all compelled to grasp the gist of something immediately. And we all have but seconds to attract our listeners before their eyes drift off to the next fleeting attraction.
At the individual level, this is a challenge for each of us. It is just about impossible to manage our lives without diffusing our focus, spreading ourselves thin.
We each engage in a daily personal battle with our inbox, and struggle to make space for meaningful relationships and more intense contemplation. But the age of multitasking is no less a test for Israeli society as a whole.
Multitasking is of course a necessity for any state. So many urgent issues compete for our attention; so much needs to be addressed and monitored. A responsible society cannot afford to focus only on one issue, and neglect others. But as multitasking takes hold of both our personal lives and the way we function as a society, we need also to be conscious of its costs and consider how to mitigate them.
Balancing so many things at once means that too often we only skim across the surface of an issue. As our concentration span shrinks, we risk losing the capacity to think about things carefully, to consider their complexity, to examine their long-term implications. We can become drawn to the elevator pitch, to the simple explanation, to the quick fix. At the same time, we become less capable of genuinely listening to one another, as multiple voices and causes seem to drown each other out.
So many issues contend for pride of place on Israel’s agenda, but in the end multitasking will only help us manage them, not resolve them. We will not be able to address the dilemmas of pursuing peace and security across our borders, or prosperity, vitality and harmony within them, without focusing on these questions deeply. We will not learn to live with the multiple elements of Israel’s tribal family, or make the relationship with Israel sustainable and relevant for a new generation of Jews across the world, unless we take time to understand their needs, their aspirations, and their fears.
The ideas that can change our society for the better, that can inspire us to shape Israel’s future, cannot be expressed in a text message.
They will be the product of profound and broad discussion.
They will be nuanced and multifaceted.
Multitasking is today an assumed and indispensible skill. It is becoming hardwired into our brains. The next great skill – the talent required to give us the edge – is not just the capacity to do manage many things at once, but the capacity to do one thing well. It is the skill of uni-tasking. The capacity to read thoroughly, listen sensitively and think deeply.
We need to ask ourselves how, in an age where multitasking is inevitable, can uni-tasking remain possible? How can we create Jewish leaders and thinkers who are capable of asking hard questions and pursuing real answers, despite the appeal of merely managing the status quo? In meeting this challenge, the Jewish people has a long tradition of uni-tasking to draw upon. Judaism has always valued deep thought and complex argument.
We pore over the same text year after year to search for new meanings.
We revisit the same themes throughout our festivals to examine their relevance for a new age. And we celebrate Shabbat to create, in Abraham Joshua Heschel’s famous phrase, a “sanctuary in time” in which we can detach ourselves from the exacting pressure of the work week.
Paradoxically, in an age where the instant is omnipresent, there is perhaps a growing hunger for ideas that are lasting and profound. We need to tap into that hunger and draw on the richness and ingenuity of Jewish thought to ensure that we constantly cultivate serious discourse and creative responses to the issues that confront us, despite the attraction of simply juggling them.
Perhaps a first step in this direction is to promote an educational system and a culture of debate that values uni-tasking no less than multitasking.
Our students can probably afford to cover less material, but give that material the time and attention it deserves. We should prefer knowing one text well, over knowing many superficially.
We need to create the space for new ideas, respectful argument, and originality that comes from bringing disparate people together without deadlines or distractions, and forcing them to leave their smartphones outside the room. Above all, we need to relentlessly nurture a society that cherishes and rewards not just how much we know about the present, or how quickly we know it, but how deeply and creatively we can think about the future.
Dr. Tal Becker is a senior fellow of the iEngage Project at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Learn more about iENGAGE at