My Mac is loaded with utilities and applications to make my digital life easier. Ditto for my iPhone. If there’s a tool on either one to help me become more efficient, more productive, I’ve got it. If anyone asked me to describe myself, I’d tell them I’m the Queen of Multitasking. Then I read The Myth of Multitasking by Christine Rosen. Uh oh. Paradigm shift.
GTD vs. Multitasking
We hear a lot of noise about each; David Allen’s Getting Things Done, and the need to multitask in today’s complex world.
With all the digital tools at my disposal—high powered Mac notebook, iPhone Mac-in-a-pocket, surely I must be more productive, more accurate, more efficient, no? How could I not be?
GTD is about focus; setting aside specific time to work on specific projects without distraction. Multitasking is about juggling, balancing, putting a lot of balls in the air and making sure they stay there.
That’s why our Macs have Mail, iCal, Address Book, browsers, Twitter clients, and upload and download capability in the background. We assemble these digital tools to ensure that we can do more. How dare anyone suggest our multitasking ways and means are mere myth.
The Myth of Multitasking
To be fair, when using my Mac or my iPhone, I usually focus on one task at a time. True, many apps and utilities may be open on my Mac, but only one gets my attention at a time, though I frequently bounce back and forth between them. My iPhone? One app at a time, though it can download email and update calendar information in the background.
That’s multitasking right? Or, is it serial tasking, since all I’m doing is one thing for a few minutes, before leaping on to something else, right? If I’m to be honest with myself, I’m more of a serial tasking addict than a true multi-tasker. Christine Rosen:
Used for decades to describe the parallel processing abilities of computers, multitasking is now shorthand for the human attempt to do simultaneously as many things as possible, as quickly as possible, preferably marshalling the power of as many technologies as possible.
Yes, that’s it. But wait. She described multitasking as an attempt to do things simultaneously. Is it possible to succeed? After all, I have the best tools available with my Apple Arsenal™ of Mac and iPhone, utilities and applications.
Multitask? Or, Multi-failure?
While we might think of driving with iPhone in hand as purely normal in the digital age, who among us would drive with a MacBook perched on our laptop below the steering wheel? I don’t even flip out my Mac on the subway for fear that it will disappear as the car door closes.
Numerous studies have shown the sometimes-fatal danger of using cell phones and other electronic devices while driving, for example, and several states have now made that particular form of multitasking illegal. In the business world, where concerns about time-management are perennial, warnings about workplace distractions spawned by a multitasking culture are on the rise.
That might be a longwinded way to say that using some devices to multitask may not be a good idea. But, at the desk I’m productive, right? After all, I can handle so many more things with my digital tools. That’s gotta be a good thing, right?
Workers distracted by e-mail and phone calls suffer a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.
Uh oh. Multitasking has an adverse effect on the brain?
Multitasking might also be taking a toll on the economy. One study by researchers at the University of California at Irvine monitored interruptions among office workers; they found that workers took an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or answering e-mail and return to their original task.
So, I did a survey of my own daily habits and found that multitasking is not all it is cracked up to be. In fact, as I survey friends, co-workers, and others who are productive, happy, and effective, few of them are as digitally proficient as me.
When we talk about multitasking, we are really talking about attention: the art of paying attention, the ability to shift our attention, and, more broadly, to exercise judgment about what objects are worthy of our attention. People who have achieved great things often credit for their success a finely honed skill for paying attention. When asked about his particular genius, Isaac Newton responded that if he had made any discoveries, it was “owing more to patient attention than to any other talent.”
In other words, productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness is not related to my Mac or iPhone, or the plethora of apps and utilities to make life easier. Focus and attention to the right things is important.
For the younger generation of multitaskers, the great electronic din is an expected part of everyday life. And given what neuroscience and anecdotal evidence have shown us, this state of constant intentional self-distraction could well be of profound detriment to individual and cultural well-being. When people do their work… with crumbs of attention rationed out among many competing tasks, their culture may gain in information, but it will surely weaken in wisdom.