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Today I finished listening to an audiobook. When I started, I focused on listening. For the last few chapters, I multitasked.
The Project Begins
The Who is one of my favorite bands and Roger Daltrey is one of my favorite singers. When his memoir, Thanks a Lot Mr. Kibblewhite, was released in October, I got the book and began reading it. After hearing a sample of the audiobook version that he recorded, however, I realized that listening to rather than reading Daltrey’s story would be a richer experience.
I decided that when I was listening to the audiobook, I would do nothing else, I would do it at home, and I would use headphones to enable me to fully concentrate.
Switching Late In The Game
Daltrey’s recording runs eight and a half hours, so I listened to it in blocks of time. Today I saw that I still had an hour and a half to go. As much as I enjoyed focused listening, I was keen to finish the audiobook. So this morning I listened while checking my email, visiting my LinkedIn page and, I’m not proud to admit, reviewing how my latest Facebook post was doing.
With 38 minutes left to go, I decided to wrap it up while running. The recording ended just as I made it back home.
Monotasking Versus Multitasking: What The Experience Was Like
When I did nothing but listen to Daltrey recite the making of masterpieces like Quadrophenia and The Who By Numbers, I was thoroughly immersed in the experience. It reminded me of listening to my first stories when I was a kid. It was pleasant to escape into Roger’s world for a while, and he was a gracious host.
The moment I threw my iPhone into the mix, however, things changed, and not in a good way. I was constantly flitting from one experience to another, and it was frustrating. When I now reflect on the last part of Roger’s story, I feel I watched the end of a movie with every other scene shortened or deleted. And I was hardly productive when I checked my business email during this period. To make a bad situation worse, I felt guilty for doing several things poorly instead of one thing well.
- Focused listening was immersive, satisfying and escapist.
- Listening while doing other things was dismaying and unrewarding.
- I’ve known for a long time that the brain is built to monotask. This is one of the things I write and lecture about. But it wasn’t until I compared monotasking with multitasking on the same project that I felt, rather than intellectualized, the difference.
A good friend of mine just completed listening to Ron Chernow’s massive biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Clocking in at almost 50 hours, this audiobook is not for the impatient. My friend told me he was able to complete it because he listened to some of it while doing mundane things. He did not experience the frustration I did with multitasking.
The fourth thing I learned is that my experience with distracted listening is not universalizable.
Try This (At Home)
Whether you’ve already started an audiobook or podcast episode or are about to do so, spend a chunk of time doing nothing but listening. Then spend another block of time doing other things.
Were the experiences equally satisfying for you?
Did you get as much out of the audiobook or podcast while you were multitasking as you did when you focused only on listening?
A Call To Action
I’ve used the Freedom app to block access to various websites so that I can do one thing at a time on my computer. I’ve also taken off the notifications on my iPhone when I want to concentrate on a single task.
But these strategies work only if I’m willing to make them work. That’s the fifth thing I learned, so from now on I will do my best to practice focused listening.
If you too find monotasking preferable to multitasking, what strategy will you use to do more of it?
What Does This Have To Do With Leadership?
This is a column about leadership, specifically ethical or high-character leadership. You might be wondering, “What does listening to an audiobook and doing nothing else have to do with being a good leader?”
A lot, as it turns out. Ethical leaders care about the consequences of their actions. They know that multitasking isn’t as productive as monotasking is.
Mindful leaders tend to make fewer mistakes. They’re respectful people and give others their full attention. That makes them likable people, too. Isn’t this last reason sufficient for making focused listening, and mindfulness in general, a habit?
December 20, 2018 at 11:02AM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs