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Stop Multitasking

Two powerful reminders as the academic year begins

September 6, 2016
 

Every so often, we need that reminder to just. stop. multitasking. Some of the most important things we do on the job need the full span of our attention.

For me, one of those reminders came years ago, in a previous career universe. Our newsroom was embarking on a yearlong series of stories about creativity and creative people. A key expert we consulted was Margo Long, who developed the Center for Gifted Education and Professional Development at Whitworth University in Spokane, Wash. She defined and illustrated her views on creativity and then offered advice I’ve never forgotten: You cannot create and critique at the same time, she said. You can do one and then the other – but not both simultaneously.

In a newsroom filled with critique-minded people, her comment made us stop, and think.

Similar advice came from interview guru John Sawatsky. Now working at ESPN, Sawatsky had been the top investigative reporter in Canada who went on to develop powerful evidence showing the art of the news interview. Why weren’t journalists’ stories better? His answer was disarmingly simple: Because most journalists don’t ask good questions.

Sawatsky told our newsroom that conducting an interview was like breathing in and breathing out. You can’t do both at the same time. You either can be on input mode or on output mode, and the journalist needed to be on input mode.

Now, in the freshness of a new academic season, the mood and the mode across campuses are set to output. Admissions and orientation staff tell new students about campus life. Presidents outline their vision for the coming year. Faculty get set to tell students what is expected in the classroom. In communications and marketing, we’re geared up to tell the stories of our institution and engage our many constituencies.

In the midst of all that output, people such as Sawatsky and Long would tell us to put those settings on hold. The beginning of fall term may be the best time of the academic year to find the space to turn off the output and the critique parts of our work for a period.

What that may that look like at your institution depends on what you’re looking for. You may intentionally want answers to specific questions, more of an interview scenario. What’s it like to be a freshman on campus? A new faculty member? Why are you here?

Or you may be seeking serendipity, by sharing a meal at the student center, or dropping in on a residence hall meeting. It’s important to pay attention to questions others are asking. They open the door to further insights.

Of course we can and must listen by tapping into social media conversations and analyzing data metrics. But nothing replaces the value of being available on your campus in person to seek meaningful input and spark your own creativity. It’s like breathing in and breathing out. Sometimes, we need a reminder that we can’t do both at the same time – and we can’t do one without the other.

Peggy Kuhr is Professor & Special Assistant to the President at the University of Montana.

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