Pesharim - The Unfinished Man
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar
Shape without form, shade without colour,
Paralysed force, gesture without motion;
Those who have crossed
With direct eyes, to death's other Kingdom
Remember us--if at all--not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men.
From “The Hollow Men”
I saw a Man Unfinished, he bled labors by the score
A thousand times a million, an infinity of chores,
I thought to ask him "why do so, what is the pressing need?"
But I could not his flesh to find; above, below, beneath,
It seems that he was shrouded wrapt by nothing more than words
So everything essential always less than more occurred,
I left him lost a'wandering to find a path much clearer
And found instead a Finished Man a'staring in the mirror...
Article on UM Study
I more or less completely agree with the results of this study, as well as the reasons they conclude that multi-tasking is counterproductive. I learned a long time ago, by developing a set of complex time management schedules for my work and other activities, that multi-tasking, as the term is commonly employed, is actually detrimental to true attempts to become more productive, or to maintain a higher state of productivity over a long period of time.
Now I don’t disagree with the idea of multi-tasking per se, with the idea of accomplishing a number of related, or even entirely different tasks, basically simultaneously, or at least in a fluid fashion. But I do disagree with the modern impulse and common methods of multi-tasking that seem to be pursued and executed throughout all levels of our society and culture. The truth is that nothing really productive ever gets done, as I have learned through hard experience, until things get done in their entirety. Until things are both begun, worked upon, and finally successfully concluded or completed. One cannot be engaged in a dozen activities at once and expect to complete any of them successfully, or even most of them with any real degree of accomplishment. The one absolute ingredient of true success is to finish what you start, in the very way that a thing needs to have both a head and a tail to know both where it is headed and from where it originated. A half of a man is no good to anyone, and a half-resolved task or an inconclusive result or an unfinished project is about as useful as the left half of a man sans his right half.
So the only true method of productive success is to finish what you start, and to concentrate upon the task at hand until it is concluded. And far too often the person, the corporation, and the organization that is heavily involved in multi-tasking is simply taking on ever greater loads of work and effort without ever decisively completing that work or effort which needs most to be focused upon and concluded before moving on to the next task. To achieve what is true, and good, and lasting, you must complete what is unfinished. This is as true of the man, as it is of the project, or the case, or the invention, or the endeavor, or the war, or the economy, or the nation, or the enterprise. What is left to rot upon the vine is of value only to the birds of the air and the scavengers of the earth.
This is not to say of course that multi-tasking has no place or function or value to anyone. I am not drawing such a conclusion. What I am saying in contrast is that multi-tasking, as with the effort to resolve and complete any task must be undertaken in such a way as to foster real productivity and to lessen (or at least make easier) the workload, rather than to add to or burden the workload ad infinitum. And when things are left unresolved, and other work piles upon the load that is already hard to bear, then multi-tasking causes far more havoc than it resolves to ease.
Therefore multi-tasking, if it is to be a good and true agent working for the virtue of productivity and accomplishment, instead of being merely an operative vice of counter-productivity and unfocused and effete dispersal of effort, must also be well focused, meaningfully organized, and properly executed. In short it must be executed and employed in a logical fashion which allows small and unimportant tasks to service themselves so that the individual may work upon the important, demanding, even Herculean task unfettered by scattered focus or hamstrung by the thousand stinging wasps of nuisance toil. Put another way, many small things that are easily resolved may be competently multi-tasked or delegated, if the proper means or agents of execution may be found, but what is most important must be worked with diligent and focused effort until such time as the proper end may be brought to the necessary task. And only the determined man can conclude the indispensable effort.
For instance, at home I may, before my real work begins, feed and water the dogs, set the dishes to washing in the washing machine, apply the applications which will defragment or repair my computer files, and then set my workload in order while consulting my worklist for the day. All of these tasks may be accomplished in short order, either because they are minor jobs, or I am well trained in them and they are reflexive, or because they require little focus or because they are executed by machines. For instance if I set the dishes to washing or my computer to repairing itself while I am at more important tasks then those things can be done at the same moment I am accomplishing far more crucial work. While my computer repairs itself I may sit down with a pad and begin writing, working on an invention, examining the details of a case, making an analysis, or even conducting an experiment. The computer does not need me to watch it defragment itself or run a systems’ analysis. I am elsewhere at far more vital tasks.
But when I am at the vital task then I do not squander my physical, mental, or psychological resources by attempting to attend to many unimportant things in my mind at once. I set the small things to servicing themselves first, so that they may be executed while I work, and while I work I work undisturbed and focused upon the important things at hand. I do not answer the phone, unless I see the number and think it an emergency or really pressing (if it is important then the person will always call back later or leave a message, if not, it is not important – and truth be told most people constantly answer their home phone or far more stupid cell phones simply to give the illusion that they are either socially important or immensely busy, and the real truth is, the vast majority of people are simply not that important in any way and never will be, if indeed anyone is, or put another way, they are not so socially vital that the world cannot do without them – and the world certainly will one day - and not so really busy after all or they would not have time to be pissing away with handling phone messages all day like a secretary), do not allow disturbances or distractions, and try not to let my mind wander from the job to be completed. I work the thing until it is completed or until I can make no more progress at that time. In summary multi-tasking works only when unimportant things are relegated to the background or when unimportant tasks are executed in the background, and when vital efforts and projects are worked with absolute focus of concentration and drive until real progress is achieved. When real things are achieved and good progress is made that is true productivity. Everything else is a charade of effort and a façade of illusion. To do well a thing must end well, and to end well it must be attended until it is completed. You do not interrupt the birth of a child to respond to an email or make a post on a blog. You reason and decide upon the great things first, and there go your true efforts. Lesser things are for when, and if, you have the time to spare.
The modern impulse and habit of jumping from one task to another in media res and to extolling and orating upon the enormous numbers of tasks upon which one may make multi-fluid effort (and yet no concrete gain) is not only ridiculously counterproductive, it feeds the delusion that a man achieves much merely by being involved in much. (The internet is a perfect example of such a juvenile deception. It is akin to the teenage ideal that having many acquaintances either makes one a good friend or makes one truly important. The truth is that the internet is for the most part a huge waste of time that could be much more profitably and productively spent at other and far more significant and worthwhile tasks. My advice to you is, as soon as you finish reading this, get your lollygagging, web cruising, easily distracted ass off the internet and go do something really worth doing. And don’t come back here or anywhere else on the internet ‘til you have something really worth saying, or someone else has something really worth listening to, which I’m gonna tell you right now, personal egos aside ain’t nearly as often as most people deceive themselves into believing.) It is not what you are involved in that is the real consideration, it is what you achieve by what you involve yourself with that is the true measure of your productivity and progress. You cannot be all things to all men, nor can you achieve all things in all situations. Pick your battles; fight your wars to their conclusion, and disregard and dispose of those things that would consume your time and effort and achievement with much diffusion and delay. You cannot be a Finished Man if everything about you lies incomplete, and you cannot complete what must be done if all you ever do is balance the petty and the vital in the same set of unreliable scales. Some things you do may change the world, if you apply yourself aright and towards the right end, but the vast majority of the things you do are merely killing time, and by extension, the time you have to finish what is best, and what is best not to ignore. Do not multi-task yourself into a trap-like tesseract of obscurity and triviality. Take up the Herculean task, take up your cross and finish what you start, and cast aside the petty things for they will end as they began, unnoticed and inessential. You cannot build a Finished Man, urgent, vital, and worthwhile, upon the electronic screens of your computer, upon a blog found on the internet, within the confines of a video game, or through the measureless text files of your cell phone message box. All things artificial, artificially pursued, yield but the contrived and the unreal.
Men though are built by what they concentrate upon and by what they do, and far too often in our modern world by what they fail to do because they are too busy in their garden of infinite detritus to truly ever live. Live. Leave this place and go forth and truly live. You cannot find here what you will not attempt for yourself. And do not look for treasure in a horde of useless tasks.
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