Do Less! My New Year’s resolution for the Conservatory

We have reached a point in our society where success is equated with busyness. We are living with the false notion that the more we can cram into our day, the more successful we are. It was only twenty years ago that the wonders of desktop computing, email, cell phones, and the internet began creeping into our lives. The promise of these marvelous technologies increasing efficiency and giving us more time did indeed come to pass, but our decisions of how to use that extra time took us down a very slippery slope. Instead of using our extra time to relax, read, reflect, listen to great music, or interact with friends, we used the extra time to do even more work. Instead of stepping off the hamster wheel to enjoy the feel of the wood shavings between our toes, we had extra hamster wheels installed so we could step off of one and climb right into another. Then we figured out ways to keep all the wheels spinning at once. Employers spoke reverentially of this skill and hired employees who were good at it. It was dubbed “multitasking.” It referred to computers or people handling multiple tasks at the same time, but according to recent research, a more accurate definition would be: “the ability for a single person to simultaneously perform multiple tasks less efficiently than if that person performed each individually.” An interesting article on the topic appeared in the New York Times in 2007. So where is our relentless quest for increased productivity leading us?

Since I arrived at Lawrence this past July, one of the most common complaints from both faculty and students was that their stress levels were too high and they were having trouble just keeping up. This sounded remarkably similar to what I used to hear at my former employer — hard-driving, fast-paced, tightly-wound, Microsoft. I must say I was slightly surprised to see these same symptoms inside the ivory walls of academia. Part of the issue is societal. We have come to worship the hamster wheel, doing more, because we can do more, is valued. The other part of the issue is that the students and professors at Lawrence are deeply passionate about what they are doing and want to take advantage of every opportunity available to them. This a good thing. It is a great thing. It is also a bad thing. Cramming a whole bunch of classes and activities into a term, even if one passionately loves them all, can lead to less than memorable results. I offer a personal tale of woe as an example. After a year or so as a double degree student at Lawrence I was doing well. I loved school and wanted to take all sorts of classes. Finally, I threw caution to the wind and added a Latin class to my already heavy load. All went well for the first five or six weeks, but after that, the ship started to sink. I spent every waking minute bailing out the ship–I wrote papers, read all night for my literature classes, studied German, practiced my trombone, and memorized hundreds of Latin vocabulary words. I got through the term with As and Bs, but it was an educational disaster–I was the epitome of a multitasker doing everything poorly! The cramming and sleepless nights that got me through the term also guaranteed that I have no lasting memory of anything I learned that term–none, nada, zilch–which means I learned nothing at all. The letter grades stand as a hollow reminder of my Lost Term. I compare that to my vivid and lasting memories of Freshman Studies, when my class load was reasonable, and I want to weep. The lessons I learned in Freshman Studies, and indeed, in every other term at Lawrence, are with me every day. They inform my life. They have helped shape my identity. For my Lost Term, I would have been better off saving the tuition, sitting in a hammock and banging two coconuts together for three months. What a monumental waste of a golden opportunity!

So, as 2009 begins, I am personally challenging our students and faculty to actually schedule time for reflection, contemplation, interaction, and decompression. One of the most important aspects of learning is reflection–the process of really absorbing what one has learned that day. Sadly, it is usually the first thing that goes as we climb from one hamster wheel to the next. If a schedule has no oasis for reflection, then the schedule is too full. We need to follow the lessons of the environmental movement and preserve open spaces on our schedules! It won’t be easy. We see time as empty space to be filled rather than a critical component to our education. This mindset needs to change. There will always be a tempting class to conveniently fill the open slot, but we must resist. Our goal at Lawrence is to think critically and learn deeply. Time is vital to that process. It isn’t enough to skim through a required reading at three in the morning because that is all the time you can give to that particular hamster wheel. An education deserves a more thoughtful approach. The London Underground tells us to “mind the gap.” I’m telling you to not only mind the gaps, but to honor the gaps, cherish the gaps, increase the gaps, bask in the gaps!

So now you are probably seeing where I am going with my New Year’s resolution: Do Less. The beauty of the resolution is that actively focusing on doing less is the surest path to learning more deeply, thinking more expansively, absorbing more thoroughly, and retaining more effectively. I invite you all to join in this challenge as well. Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas as we all strive to do less, together!

You can reach me at pertlb@lawrence.edu.

May your new year be filled with wide open spaces. . .

Submitted on January 7th, 2009

By Brian Pertl, Dean, Lawrence Conservatory of Music

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