The illusion of multitasking

Have you heard of David Allen or Getting Things Done, sometimes abbreviated
to GTD? He’s something of a guru on how to keep a clear head while dealing
successfully with our rapidly accelerating and increasingly complicated lives.
More on him later.

Apparently, younger people are better equipped to deal with the modern world
because they are much more able to multitask. They are entering the workforce
with different abilities and attitudes and, quite often, are baffled by the
inflexibility of working methods based on older, more hierarchical principles.
To them, networking and continuous partial attention are second nature.

At least, that’s what you hear from the advocates of the Web 2.0 and social
computing worlds.

The basic idea is that if you are connected and you can grab help from other
people at the moment you need it, you save time. They, in turn, can do the same
for others. The end result is that the network as a whole gets more done in less
time. And if that network is a business network, then the organisation gains
from the behaviour.

In everyday terms, it’s as if a neighbour, say, is a dab hand at gardening
and you’re a bit of a computer whizz. You could barter your time and your skills
for theirs. In half an hour you could get your roses pruned while your neighbour
gets their new computer set up. Total time required for both tasks: one hour.
The DIY option could end up taking a whole day.

OK, this ignores the interruptive element, but it illustrates the economics.
You get distracted from what you are doing for a short time to help someone save
more time, and vice versa.

Coming back to the work environment, the interruptions can be both more
frequent and shorter.

They could come from instant messaging, email, Twitter, RSS feeds and so on.

Some sit there passively inviting your attention while others are more in
your face. Your strategy for dealing with them will determine your peace of mind
and your general effectiveness. An important element is to have some idea how
your brain works.

Which is where Allen comes in. At a recent conference, he took a stab at
explaining the illusion of multitasking. He acknowledges the huge power of the
human brain generally, but says that what he calls the ‘core processor’ cannot
multitask. “To concentratedly focus on more than one thing is impossible,” he

The key word here is ‘concentratedly’. You simply cannot deal with an
important email, or respond to an instant message, and still give a visitor or a
phone caller your undivided attention.

So why the new-found enthusiasm for ‘continuous partial attention’? (Harvard
Business Review chose it as a ‘breakthrough idea’ last year, even though Linda
Stone had been talking about it for a decade.)

Crudely put, it’s about being an always-on node in a variety of IT-mediated
networks. Participation is driven by a desire not to miss anything important.
And, if that important thing pops up in the middle of a phone call, you run slap
bang into the multitasking problem again.

Allen prefers to describe multitasking as ‘rapid refocusing’, since the brain
can only concentrate on one foreground task at a time. And key to the success of
this refocusing is to avoid leaving a mental residue as you switch your
attention to the next task.

He describes this residue as “a drag on your psyche”. If action is required,
make a note and deal with it later. Otherwise you haul mental clutter from one
activity to the next, progressively reducing your ability to give any one task
your full attention.

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