In the excellent essay, “The Myth of Multitasking,” Christine Rosen opens up with this 1740s quote from a Lord Chesterfield to his son that I can’t stop thinking about:
There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.
I wished my kindergarten teacher had started every day of class with that lesson because it’s obvious that I have never accomplished anything significant in my fifty-six years because I’ve always been trying to do two things at once. I’m a jack of all trades, master of none kind of guy, and it annoys the hell out of me.
This morning’s activities will well illustrate my need for focus and the pitfalls of multitasking. After my shower I started ripping CDs with my second computer, rolled out my exercise mat and started doing my yoga-like back exercises while daydreaming the opening scene of a novel I’d like to write, while another part of my mind kept reminding me to work on the short story I had been fleshing out in my imagination yesterday while exercising, and thoughts of three or four blog ideas buzzed like bees around these main ideas hoping to get more bio-CPU cycles themselves, while I was also trying to remember who I wanted to see today, where I wanted to go, and what I wanted to do with my Saturday.
If I followed Lord Chesterfield’s advice I would have had a single-minded Zen-like focus on my exercises and my back would be much better for it. (I just jumped over to put a new CD into the burner and ran to the kitchen to feed our cats.)
After my exercises I got up and checked my email and stats on this blog page and followed a link to a web site that mentions John Scalzi’s comments on fame, followed the link to Scalzi’s site and then found a link to Wil Weaton’s site where he discusses fame and then I found a link to Stephen Fry’s site, also about fame, but a very long well thought out essay. This gave me an idea to write a blog post about how it’s more rewarding to read a famous person’s blog than to actual meet them for a few minutes.
(Next CD to rip, which requires getting up and using the computer on the opposite side of the room.) Before I could start writing that blog, while doing a previous CD change, I got the idea I wanted to reinstall my Roku SoundBridge, so I could play MP3s on my computer through my stereo in living room, and got up and went looking for it. While tearing through two closets trying to remember where I put the Roku, I got ideas for several projects dealing with organization. I have boxes and boxes of wires for stereos, computers, televisions, DVD players, etc. that I really must organize one day. I was slightly distracted by the tight squeeze of clothes hanging in the closet, making it hard to get to all the boxes and remembering my promise to my wife to throw some worn clothes out, when I finally found the Roku.
(Next CD) I was surprised by how easy it was to put the Roku back into service but I discovered something interesting. The Roku was listing the music from both my computers, iTunes on the main machine, Windows Media on two machines, and FireFly media server on the second machine. This revelation inspired me to write a blog about the most efficient way to serve up MP3 files in a home network. (Next CD) I wondered if I booted up the laptop if it would see that machine too. (A pause to go pet a sick cat and think about a blog about the pet healthcare crisis.)
As you can see my mind is very far from Kwai Chang Caine’s focused mind in the old Kung Fu TV series. (I’ll stop the annoying interruptions about the CD changes and other diversions while writing, but you get the idea about how I’m constantly trying to multitask.) If I was a Kung Fu master, I wouldn’t own a wall of CDs and be trying to convert them to my computer library because I wouldn’t be into owning things.
If I was a real writer, with a focused mind, I would get up each morning, work on my novel and not think about about a dozen blog ideas, or another dozen short story ideas, or even worry about organizing a CD collection, or care about my clothes closet or boxes of wires. I never finished a novel because, like Lord Chesterfield says, I’m trying to do more than one thing and there’s not enough time in a lifetime to do all that.
On the other paw, I am pretty good at multitasking if I’m willing to accept that I do so many things in a half-ass way. I have four clunky websites (not counting several I manage at work). I read about fifty books a year, and see a hundred movies on DVD and at the theater, and watch several hundred TV shows and documentaries. I have a big collection of computers, books, magazines, CDs, gadgets, and other crap that I maintain and help do my part to keep the economy going. I read a zillion web pages every year, and my Karma level is excellent on Slashdot.
Now over at 43 Folders, Merlin Mann offers his opinion in a podcast also called The Myth of Multitasking. Mann’s take is multitasking is impossible for humans, that people aren’t parallel processing machines like supercomputers, and the best we can do is be very good at task switching. Furthermore, it’s his belief that some people are good at task switching and others are not. The implication being that some people can easily bookmark their place when they switch tasks. Mann also believes once you discover you can’t multitask, you will lose the anxiety over getting so much done and focus on getting the job at hand accomplished.
My theory is the human brain is a fantastic bio-computer that parallel processes on vast scales, but the conscious mind is just one thread that runs on top of everything else that can’t really multitask, but like Mann suggests, can task switch. Whether this is a good feature of Human 4.0 is yet to be proved. Maybe multitasking will be a prominent feature of Homo Superior 1.0, but for now we have to decide what’s the optimal operating expectations for who we are now.
Should I trade all that fun chaotic juggling to be just a guy focused on writing a novel? Is it even possible for me to be Mr. Zen Lit Man? This brings up the second lighthouse beacon of an article I read this week, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr in The Atlantic Monthly, that only fuels the fire of my desire to seek a simpler focused life. Mr. Carr confesses that Google and the Internet living has reduced his ability to read long works.
If we could multitask, the length of any working process could be infinite, but if we can only task switch, then the critical factor is the time segment devoted to each task. What Mr. Carr is suggesting is the Internet is making us used to living with short task segments and we’re losing our ability to process longer tasks. This is an interesting idea, but I have to ask: Did people have the knack for focusing on longer tasks before the Internet?
Long before Google, magazines and newspapers were featuring shorter articles with lots of side-bars, and short attention getting blips of information. Television, with sitcoms and more and more commercials started dividing up our attentions starting back in the 1950s. The car radio has long had buttons to quickly switch between shows for those weak of attention. Imagine what the television clicker has done to our minds?
I too have found that I can no longer read hours at a time on a single book or long essay. I had a different theory as to the cause of this, and assumed I had been corrupted by audio books which allows me to listen to other people read long books. I justified my laziness by pointing out that those people are much better readers than I am, and that I learn so much more when I can concentrate on their readings.
So now I have two theories to test. There might be many reasons why I can no longer read books hours at a stretch. One that comes to mind is comfort. I get back and neck strains, and my eyes weary quickly. Large print helps, but to be honest, I genuinely prefer audio books. After reading Carr’s article I will strongly consider my continual effort to multitask or task switch as a cause of attention deficit. I will admit that when I read too long on anything I get antsy for new input. The Internet might support my addiction for keeping multiple threads of thought going.
Conversely, if I’m going to be a real writer, as opposed to a blogger, I’d need to focus on one piece of writing at a time, and keep focused on that piece, draft after draft until it’s perfect and I could sell it. In other words, I’d be forced to do ONE thing for weeks at a time. I don’t know if I could handle that. Task switching might be natural, and the ability to focus on a single task may be a special talent. My friend Mike who is also a programmer says when he programs he feels like he’s in a deep well and all distractions are far away. I truly envy him for that gift.
I can’t take a crap without reading a magazine while thinking through a handful of ideas about what I’ll do when I pull up my pants. What if I got up this morning and just worked on writing that short story I’ve been meaning to finish for years. The one I come back to the most often? And what if when I needed to consume or evacuate I’d continue to think on that one story. It certainly would help if I lived in a studio apartment with little beyond a bed, desk, writing equipment and four white walls. No wonder Pride and Prejudice was so great, there just wasn’t that many distractions back in Jane Austen’s time.
I guess the real question is whether or not I could do the focused thing just one hour a day? It’s an obvious compromise of where to start. However, I think real writers probably sacrifice a giant pile of fun diversions to get a quality book finished. Maybe I just don’t have that kind of mental makeup. If I found a magic lantern and the Genie granted my wish to concentrate, would I be happy trading in a year’s worth of active diversions to produce one science fiction novel? That scares me. It sounds boring and lonely.
Dedication to Details
Last night I saw an episode of Nova about making Japanese samurai swords, and Friday night I saw a documentary that included a piece about a Chinese guy making traditional bows and arrows. In each case, these were complicated skills handed down from the past and required the artisan to devote his life to his work. Both documentaries pointed out that these acts of devotion to extreme details were being destroyed by modern culture. Few people in our society dedicate as much of their time to a single-minded objective, but there are some. Olympic athletes, classical musicians, and other successful people in any discipline.
There is always the chance that multitasking and Googling is common in society because that’s how the brains of most people work. If I had a brain for single minded focusing I would be a person pursuing something very focused. We see all those enchanting martial arts fables, like Kung Fu Panda where a slob of a mind can be polished into a diamond-point jewel of focused attention. Is that really possible? Maybe such training is possible if we start as children, but I doubt it for middle-aged adults. Can I and others improve our minds with incremental improvements, especially late in life, well I think there’s plenty of evidence for that.
We know that doing the crossword puzzle or the sudoku will exercise our brain, so I would imagine reading long articles from The New Yorker and The Atlantic will condition our mental focus towards longer attention spans. I would also assume we could follow Lord Chesterfields’ advice by starting the day by making a short list of things we want to do, and then work on them one at a time. My closet is still a mess, but if I stuck with it, focused my mind, and only worked on my closet, it would be finished with an hour’s effort.
A New Theory of Multitasking
I think some kinds of multitasking are possible and aren’t bad. I wouldn’t want to sit and burn CDs until I had finished all 1500 of them. I think I could safely work on cleaning out my closet, listen to an audio book and burn CDs and be a success if I finished the closet in a reasonable amount of time and did a perfect job. Actually, this may be a form of true multitasking, because my mind would be focused on the audio book story, and my body would be working to organize the closet and rip CDs.
People can do two things at once physically, but it’s uncommon – like rubbing your abdomen in a circle with your right hand and patting your head with your left. I can’t sort speaker wire and switch out CDs, so that would be task switching. But is it task switching or multitasking to listen to a book and do something physical that doesn’t require much mental processing like walking, doing the dishes, sorting wire or swapping out CDs?
The Good Old Days
I think many people would like to return to the good old days of a less hectic life. They feel that life would be better if they didn’t have so many programming events demanding time slices. Makes me wonder what my Main() loop looks like. The belief is we’d be happier with fewer function calls and more time where our CPU usage falls to 0%. Personally, I’d be philosophically happier if my log files showed more completed jobs, and fulfilled if I routinely shipped some fine 1.0 products. I have learned that achieving a zero email inbox is very satisfying. I don’t think we need to become Amish or Tibetan to find happiness. I do think that learning to tame the mind is a worthy goal and all these mental lessons that are a byproduct of computer usage and Jetsons-fast living is helping us evolve.
I am reminded of some odd advice. A modern day guru, or maybe it was a comedian, suggested getting up every morning and pistol whipping yourself if you had crippling fears of being mugged. I wonder if I got up every morning and focused my mind intently on any kind of mental exercise, if I wouldn’t build up some focusing muscles? If my flitting attention ever settles down to allow me to pursue such an experiment, I’ll let you know the results.
5 thoughts on “Roping A Wayward Mind”
I think the problem of focusing on one piece of writing at a time is a fairly common one. While I am not a successful writer, I doubt I am unusual in that I tend to flit between different works of fiction and nonfiction, sometimes intentionally. I find it hard to have any perspective on a story if I get too close to it, so that it is useful for me to put it aside awhile and let it percolate in the back of my brain before returning to it a bit fresher and a bit more objective.
Certainly we would all be more productive if we had Robert Silverberg’s legendary work habits. He was known for sitting at his desk in the morning and typing furiously the entire day until packing up in the evening. No flitting, no writers’ block, no lack of concentration. Of course, if everybody was like that the market would be flooded with so much fiction who could possibly read it all anyway?
Great post, james. I thought you might like this video on Youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a5vRMgw6pk4
Marcy, that is a good video, and I especially like his advice to not multitask with people. I hate when I talk to someone on the phone and they are trying to do something else. I really hate talking to someone on the phone who are also chatting on the computer and trying to interact with two or more people.
I think there is a growing tide of sentiment against multitasking.
I agree totally with Merlin Mann’s post on multi-tasking, but it is surprising how easy it is to fall into the trap of trying to do several things at once, especially when you are working at your computer.
In his recent book “Brain Rules” Dr. John Medina makes the point that the attentional system of our brain can only focus on one thing at a time. We talked about the practical significance of this when I interviewed him in Episode 37 of the Brain Science Podcast:
The number of accidents caused by people driving while talking on their cell phones is an example of the fact that this is not a trivial issue.
Ginger Campbell, MD
Brain Science Podcast
I absolutely love to discover old quotes like that which stand in the face of today’s logic and reasoning. I couldn’t agree more. I do think, as you do, that some multi-tasking is good, but I am afraid that our society is too focused on cranking out people who have a little knowledge of a lot of things but are not true masters of any one thing, thus severely watering down and weakening the global intelligence, etc. With work demanding that a person multi-task with the best of them I think it is even more important to try to maintain some kind of focus when one is not at work.