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Multitasking Dulls the Senses: Counting without Keeping Score

Multitasking Dulls the Senses: Counting without Keeping Score

EACE Blog contribution by Alfreda James, Assistant Director, Graduate Student and Post Doc Career Services at Stony Brook University 

I, Alfreda James, make the following promises for academic year 2014-2015:

  • have no more than three open tabs in my web browser
  • keep no more than 30 unread emails in my inbox
  • confine my daily to-do list to 4 high priority items
  • not keep score

But in reality there are 20 open tabs in my browser when a bell sounds to announce my next student appointment. My mind is humming with distraction. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between fact and fantasy with my senses dulled by multitasking.

countingWe counsel students; we have a calendar to track the number of appointments. We use another application to generate reports on the number of students trekking to appointments, events, and interviews. Counting is simple, basic arithmetic at the end of a reporting period. But how do we count without keeping score?

A score infers a win or a loss. A score can measure or even predict an outcome. But keeping score is also an attitude and a set behaviors.

If we keep score, we’ll be forever conscious of what we lack. We don’t have staff, a flat budget, and not enough hours of the day. If we keep score, our brains start to reminisce about a past where everything was perfect. But there’s a problem with this type of win-lose mental game. Our memories are imperfect, selective. We easily recall when we were right; our memories are less clear when we were wrong or acted with incomplete information.

The behavior that comes with keeping score raises barriers. Can we count without keeping an attitudinal score about who is right and who is wrong?

This summer I spent five days in San Diego and another five days in Quantico, VA. San Diego was the site of the graduate career consortium; I participated in an educators’ workshop at Marine Base, Quantico. Here’s what I learned: the NIH is trying to accurately count the number of postdocs currently in training; the Marines aim to diversify its officer ranks. These organizations are counting. Metrics are important to both organizations transitioning to a future. The NIH wants to train the next generation of scientists; the Marines want to maintain a legacy while modernizing its leadership.

But as I described my summer trips to campus professionals outside career services, I found myself in an awkward position. It was inconceivable that I would spend an entire week, really two weeks, focused on specific categories of employers and occupations. In our multitasking, list-driven world, a week of professional development is a form of questionable, nearly illicit behavior. Friends asked, how could you be away from campus for so long?

But we can’t learn everything in a webinar or a drive-in conference. Just like we really aren’t concentrating with 20 open browser tabs. So, what am I suggesting with this blog?

Ditch the to-do list, turn off the computer, and talk to the person in the next cubicle or office. Better yet, walk across campus and have coffee with student. Spend more time engaged with people and less energy keeping score.

Alfreda S. James, PhD

Alfreda S. James, PhD

Alfreda S. James, PhD specializes in counseling graduate students about career options. She advises graduate students as well as undergraduates pursuing careers in public policy, government, and science. Dr. James is currently a member of the IDP Task Force and the WISE Admissions Committee. Women in Science and Engineering (WISE) provides four year scholarships to undergraduates pursing degrees in STEM disciplines. She served two terms as an evaluator for the Turner Graduate Fellowship Program. The Turner Fellowship provides financial support to underrepresented graduate students. Dr. James is also a member of the university’s HealthierU strategic planning committee, responsible for promoting wellness and health activities to over 14,000 employees.


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