Tag Archives: multitasking

“Just One Thing at a Time” – More on the Myth of Multitasking (reflecting on Cathy Davidson, Now You See It)

Cathy Davidson loves, loves, loves everything digital.  “She likes anything that departs from the customary way of doing things, especially the customary way of educating children.”  Her new book is Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.  She leads an interdisciplinary program at Duke.

But Annie Murphy Paul pretty much rejects everything about her view and approach in her Slate.com article:  Who’s Afraid of Digital Natives? – Let’s not get intimidated by kids and their Internet savvy.  She especially rejects Davidson’s fascination with the idea that the digital age is teaching us how to multitask.  Here are brief excerpts from the article:

Her position ignores the inflexible and near-universal limits on our working memory, which allow us to hold only a few items of information in our consciousness at a time, or the work of researchers like Clifford Nass of Stanford University. “Human cognition is ill-suited both for attending to multiple input streams and for simultaneously performing multiple tasks,” Nass has written. In other words, people are inherently lousy at multitasking. Contrary to the notion that those who’ve grown up multitasking a lot have learned to do it well, Nass’s research has found that heavy multitaskers are actually less effective at filtering out irrelevant information and at shifting their attention among tasks than others.
…focusing one’s attention, gathering and synthesizing evidence, and constructing a coherent argument are skills as necessary as they were before—in fact, more necessary than ever, given the swamp of baseless assertion and outright falsehood that is much of the Web. Some day not too far in the future, the digital natives may find themselves turning down the music, shutting off the flickering screen, silencing the buzzing phone and sitting down to do just one thing at a time.

“Just one thing at a time.”  In Rework, Fried and Hannson write about the value of the  “alone zone.”

You should get in the alone zone.  Long stretches of alone time are when you’re most productive.  When you don’t  have to mind-shift between various tasks, you get a boatload done.
During alone time, give up instant messages, phone calls, e-mail, and meetings.  Just shut up and get to work.  You’ll be surprised how much more you get done.

Here’s what I know.  When I close my e-mail program, close Safari, put on just the right kind of soft/truly quiet background music, open a book, and dig in, with no interruptions, I seem to “get” the book better.

Here’s what I have come to think – at least about myself.  I really can’t do two things at once.  I just can’t.

But, I could be wrong.  For a more positive/objective take on Davidson and her new book, check out The Science of Attention Spans by Casey Schwartz at The Daily Beast/Book Beast.

“Inspiration is Perishable” – And a Few Other Valuable & Useful Lessons from Rework by Fried and Hansson

I just presented my synopsis of Rework for some folks at Gaylord.  Terrific group – wonderful session.  It’s been a while since I’ve looked at this book.

Here are some takeaways:

• Some over-all observations from the book:

1)    This book is a blinding flash of the obvious (that’s what many good books are!)
2)    Results really, really matter – almost nothing else does.
3)    Be happy with good enough – but remember, good enough is never shoddy.
4)    Revenue in has to surpass expenses out.  This is the first law of business.  Otherwise, you don’t have a business – you have a hobby.
5)    Do what you need; make sure your product pleases you, meets your needs…  Then your customers will get what they need.

And, I concluded my synopsis with these:

• Six things you can do to respond to the counsel in this book:

1)  Spend only what you have to – be frugal.
2)  Focus on results – and nothing else.
3)  When you have a moment of inspiration, go with it.  Don’t let up.  — “Inspiration is perishable.”
4)  Single task – spend long stretches of time alone to make something happen.
5)  Take (better) care of yourself.  — “Forgoing sleep is a bad idea.”
6)  But, when you work, work hard – with focus – until you get something done.

• And remember – you are a manager of one.  “You come up with your own goals, and you execute.”  (Look for others who are successful at being a manager of one; hire only those, and, only when you have to).

Rework is a good book.  The chapters are short, “bite-size.”  Perfect for a few minutes of reading here and there.  Check it out.


You can purchase my synopsis of Rework, with audio + handout, from our companion web site at 15minutebusinessbooks.com.

Singletask, Don’t Multitask – The Jury Really is In!

As I have observed many times, there are themes that crop in multiple books.  And when this happens, I think they hint at true truth.  That is, the kind of truth that is genuinely important, something to pay a lot of attention to.

Here’s one that was reemphasized again this morning.  My colleague Karl Krayer presented his synopsis of The Way We’re Working isn’t Working, the new book by Tony Schwartz.  And the book, with lots of really useful counsel, says this about our multitasking world:

The most surprising drawback of multitasking is the growing evidence that it isn’t even efficient…  Once we’re distracted by something new, we often forget about the original task…  The ultimate consequence of juggling many tasks is not superficiality but rather overload.

There are so many books and articles that are making this point in one way or another.  The point is this:


Singletasking is the need of the hour, not multitasking.

Here are some other quotes to reinforce this now seemingly everywhere-present theme:

From ReWork by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson:
Instead, you should get in the alone zone.  Long stretches of alone time are when you’re most productive.  When you don’t  have to mind-shift between various tasks, you get a boatload done.
During alone time, give up instant messages, phone calls, e-mail, and meetings.  Just shut up and get to work.  You’ll be surprised how much more you get done.

From The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp:
The irony of multitasking is that it’s exhausting; when you’re doing two or three things simultaneously, you use more energy than the sum of energy required to do each task independently.  You’re also cheating yourself because you’re not doing anything excellently.  You’re compromising your virtuosity.  In the worlds of T. S. Eliot, you’re “distracted from distractions by distractions.”

From Superfreakonomics by Levitt and Dubner:
A person using a computer experiences “cognitive drift” if more than one second elapses between clicking the mouse and seeing new data on the screen.  If ten seconds pass, the person’s mind is somewhere else entirely.

I think the jury is in.  Learn to singletask, really well.  Work with depth and attention and focus on one-thing-at-a-time.

You can leave the multitasking to those who will be left behind by their lack of focus.

“You Cannot Do More Than One Thing At A Time” – Science Comfirms The Advantage Of “Single-Tasking”

This is from a recent interview by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.  (Listen, and read transcript, here).  I did not hear it live, and my wife “encouraged” me to listen to it.  (I wonder why?!)

The interview is with NY Times technology journalist Matt Richtel, who writes the series Your Brain on Computers, and his latest column is Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime (some of these ideas are discussed in this interview).

One key problem – multitasking.  His blunt conclusion: It’s pretty clear to scientists you cannot do more than one thing at a time.

Here is the key excerpt from the interview:

Well, that’s very ironic because we think when we’re multi-tasking that we’re really doing great, we’re getting two things done for the price of one or three things done in the amount of time it should take to do one thing. But what are scientists learning about how efficiently we’re doing any of those two or three things when we do them at the same time?

Yeah, this is another place where I don’t have to equivocate. It’s pretty clear to scientists you cannot do more than one thing at a time (emphasis added). This research goes back years, and it is having like its new day in the sun, its new applicability.

Your brain effectively processes one stream of information at a time. I’ve heard this very basic test from a Stanford scientist that has stuck with me. It’s a kind of cocktail party test that researchers have known about for years, where if you sit at a cocktail party and you’re listening to the person in front of you, you can’t really listen to the person behind you.

In fact, you may pick up very basic things like your name being said, if someone says it behind you, but beyond that, you’re not processing both those streams of information.

So apply that to the person sitting at a desk, fiddling with a device or trying to read an IM while surfing a website or talking on the phone to a boss or colleague or subordinate. What you are basically doing is switching rapidly among those tasks, not doing them at the same time.

And all the research says when you switch among those tasks, you cut your effectiveness at each one of them by a significant degree.

Listen to the full interview here.  It is worth your full, undivided, undistracted attention.