Single-tasking

Robin Donovan recalls how she renounced multitasking before and during the recent ISA Sign Expo.

Prepping for the ISA Sign Expo, I felt a wave of tiredness. More than the string of winter colds I’d endured, something in my brain said, “There must be a better way.” 

It wasn’t the show itself that wore me down. It was the way I approached it: cell phone in one hand, business cards in the other, eyes darting from screen to various exhibitors or attendees and back as I took notes, snapped photos and video, buzzed through social media, responded to email, took phone calls.

Seven years of that and I started to wonder if I was really attending the show, or merely relocating my office to a louder, more pungent workspace. Sure, I listened closely at appointments, but I sometimes returned home without a strong sense of the show, the industry as a whole. My memory of the details was fine, but my processing suffered.

This year, I decided to put down those accoutrements. I scheduled meetings depending on order of request and during those meetings I focused on conversation alone, only allowing myself to jot notes – I switched back to paper – in the aisles afterward.

It turns out that multitasking, as science has shown us, really is impossible (except for a small minority, of whom I don’t believe I’m a part). I’m not sure whether I engaged with more or fewer people at the show, but my sense of it is much more comprehensive than in the past.

I’ve heard futurists (who often serve as tradeshow-circuit speakers) say that the greatest challenge we face isn’t change itself, but the accelerating rate of change. Think of how disorienting it is when a grocery store remodels or reorganizes, and how you have to focus intensely to find things in the new layout week after week until you adjust. That’s roughly how change works – it consumes mental energy until we finally adapt. But what if the grocery store were revamped every month? Every week? Every day? Again, it’s the rate of change we struggle with.

I doubt pen and paper notetaking is truly the answer; I’ve heard of too many lives changed by apps like Evernote, where one can tap notes, scan handwritten scrawls, input photos and even scan and save documents with converted, searchable text. In any case, it’s not the detail of what, but the awareness of how these things are done.

In terms of ISA, I’ll be keeping my eye on artificial intelligence in the coming years. I’ve heard too many hints of it not to be on the lookout. And in life, I hope that even as the Earth seems to spin faster every second, I will still remember that sometimes, to speed up, we have to slow down.

Signs of the Times October 2018

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