Critical Thinking and Multitasking1
The ability to think critically and creatively (along with hard work and a smattering of luck) is the difference between the merely good lawyer, and the great lawyer. Unfortunately we are besieged with multiple distractions and demands every day, sometimes every hour. Having the time to think through a problem is a luxury we can seldom afford. One typical solution is to multi-task. We all accept that multi-tasking is bad, but what’s the alternative? The following is an excerpt from a speech about leadership and thinking that William Deresiewicz gave at West Point in 2009, and published in The American Scholar. I’ve placed some annotations in footnotes.
Learning How To Think
“Let’s start with how you don’t learn to think. A study by a team of researchers at Stanford University came out a couple of months ago. The investigators wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked? The answer, they discovered—and this is by no means what they expected—is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there. In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: the more people multitask, the worse they are, not just at other mental abilities, but, at multitasking itself.
One thing that made the study different from others is that the researchers didn’t test people’s cognitive functions while they were multitasking. They separated the subject group into high multitaskers and low multitaskers and used a different set of tests to measure the kinds of cognitive abilities involved in multitasking. They found that in every case the high multitaskers scored worse. They were worse at distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information and ignoring the latter.
In other words, they were more distractible. They were worse at what you might call “mental filing”: keeping information in the right conceptual boxes and being able to retrieve it quickly. In other words, their minds were more disorganized. And they were even worse at the very thing that defines multitasking itself: switching between tasks.
Multitasking, in short, is not only, not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself, you simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.
I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, to draw connections, and take me by surprise. And often, even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing. …
You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.”
“The best way to improve your ability to think is to spend time thinking. The problem is we want thinking to be easy and it’s often not. Easy thinking carries a high cost.” “Easy thinking means taking a few minutes here and there, getting the gist of a problem, and making a decision. Hard thinking is understanding the problem, understanding the variables and the nuances, thinking through the second and third-order effects, and often understanding that a little pain now will make the future a lot easier.”4
‘It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise.’ — William Deresiewicz
“Good thinkers understand a simple truth: you can’t make good decisions without good thinking and good thinking requires time. If you want to think better, schedule time to think and hone your understanding of the problem. Good thinking is expensive but poor thinking costs a fortune.”
If you have a “Big” case and would like to have another set of eyes on it give me a call at the Miller Law Offices in Nashville Tennessee 615-356-2000
1 The content here is excerpted from William Desrsiewicz’s article “Solitude and Leadership”, The American Scholar, 2009, https://theamericanscholar.org/solitude-and-leadership/
3 Our work sessions focus on extended, uninterrupted thinking about the problems in a case and possible solutions. Often we will spend more time thinking about a single case in a worksession, then may have been spent during months of case work beforehand. 4 Legal “decision-making” is too often reduced to this process of getting the gist of a problem, and taking some action.
4 Legal “decision-making” is too often reduced to this process of getting the gist of a problem, and taking some action.
5 Although I like to think I make a difference in every case I touch, the ability to focus on a single case for an extended period of time is a tremendously valuable. Our work sessions typically have the benefit of removing the lawyer from their office and the distractions that are often part of that environment.