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Multi-Tasking While I Multi-Task, I Pause, to Multi-Task

Many headed hydra

The limits of my world are the limits of my language.

At the limits of my world there are the boundaries of time and my capacity for attention.

As the marketplace for attention has filled up with an almost infinite number candidates for my finite attention, the idea of multitasking has taken hold.

If there are 24 hours in a day, and I must be asleep for some percentage of them, and I must earn my living during some percentage of them, there are a limited number of remaining hours to be filled with what the technologist like to call “content.”

Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind

If multitasking were a reality, it would increase the number of available hours for the consumption of content. Potentially, they are doubled.

The trait of multitasking is most often applied to “young people” and “Type A personalities.”

Applying the trait of multi-tasking to young people gives it the appearance of an evolutionary adaptation of the capacity for attention. We like to believe that young people are different from the rest of us in this regard.

Before you cross the street,
Take my hand,
Life is just what happens to you,
While you’re busy making other plans

As mortals, we strain against our limitations. As mortals, time defines us.

While there is such a thing as background tasking, like listening to music while knitting; this is not what we think of when we think of multitasking.

We can rapidly switch between tasks, but it’s near impossible bring deep attention to anything in that context. This is sometimes described as continuous partial attention. In addition, we rarely take the switching cost into account as we bounce between this and that.

Who would benefit from keeping the idea and expectation of multitasking alive?

While you’re doing whatever you’re doing, why not also do the thing that I’d like you to do. You’re hip to the multitasking thing aren’t you? All the kids are doing it.

TS Eliot

Here is the third section of T.S. Eliot’s poem Burnt Norton, a meditation on time and mortality. Can you read it while you watch television?

Here is a place of disaffection
Time before and time after
In a dim light: neither daylight
Investing form with lucid stillness
Turning shadow into transient beauty
With slow rotation suggesting permanence
Nor darkness to purify the soul
Emptying the sensual with deprivation
Cleansing affection from the temporal.
Neither plenitude nor vacancy. Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London,
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.

T.S. Eliot
Burnt Norton

Comments

  1. francine hardaway | September 6th, 2008 | 5:08 pm

    I can, and did. Or perhaps while listening to television. But I'd read it many times before while getting my Ph.D., ws thrilled to rediscover it again, and to be reminded that neither distraction nor twittering are new:-)

  2. danlatorre | September 7th, 2008 | 3:39 pm

    I've been looking around for research on this myth of multitasking. Some research on projects seems to show that depending on the nature of your work one has an optimal amount of concurrent projects, beyond this there's large cost for excessive interruption (see this nytimes article http://is.gd/2ktV ).

    Also there's neuroscience work looking at this too, nicely summarized in the book Brain Rules. Our cognition is more sequential than parallel so interruption has a huge tax, some tests have shown that your error rate goes up 50% and it takes you twice as long to do things. (see http://www.brainrules.net/attention).

    This has led me to focus more on the value of planning my time and tasks, and checking email as few times as possible in the day given my day to day context. Finding a good task tool and method seem the key, to line up what I'll give exclusive focus to, and I'm still not optimal at it. (Currently I find Things as the best tool, along with a very slimmed down/agile-like GTD method, still not up to speed on this tho'.)

    In our hyper-reaction-addicted world, there is a cultural expectation one needs to deal with, like a torrent it always wants to suck you in. A certain friendly stoicism seems needed to stick to one's practice in order to deliver good results that you're happy with.

  3. Marcy | September 8th, 2008 | 9:20 am

    There's also a new book, The Myth of Multitasking:

    http://www.amazon.com/Myth-Multitasking-Doing-G

  4. Marcy | September 8th, 2008 | 3:20 pm

    There’s also a new book, The Myth of Multitasking:rnrnhttp://www.amazon.com/Myth-Multitasking-Doing-Gets-Nothing/dp/0470372257/rn

  5. Marcy | September 8th, 2008 | 3:20 pm

    There’s also a new book, The Myth of Multitasking:rnrnhttp://www.amazon.com/Myth-Multitasking-Doing-Gets-Nothing/dp/0470372257/rn

  6. Marcy | September 8th, 2008 | 3:20 pm

    There’s also a new book, The Myth of Multitasking:rnrnhttp://www.amazon.com/Myth-Multitasking-Doing-Gets-Nothing/dp/0470372257/rn

  7. echovar » Blog Archive » The Demons Aren’t In The Machine | February 13th, 2011 | 6:24 pm

    […] edit later. Gopnik points out that the problem with the constant interruptions, change of focus and multitasking while we multitask isn’t one of a rational mind having to focus among a panoply of options, but rather that of a […]