Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

June 23rd, 2008:

Productivity Theater

Slashdot recently aggregated an article from The New Atlantis suggesting that multitasking makes us stupid. This is old news to a lot of people, myself included, but it's interesting how today's pervasive multitasking culture is finally engendering a healthy dose of backlash. Last November, there was an even blunter piece in The Atlantic Monthly that I had hoped to comment on here, but…I was interrupted. Turn your cellphone off and read both.

In human cognition as in computer systems, context changes are costly. Rational thought (as opposed to pure subconscious ideamaking) is strictly linear, and depends utterly on bringing a network of pertinent facts and relationships among facts to the forefront of the mind for easy reference. Lose that network and you will lose your train of thought; in fact, that's what “losing your train of thought” actually is. Some people may be better than others at picking up the train and slapping it down on another section of track without spilling the coal cars, but nobody delivers the load faster than the one who just brings it to the destination in uninterrupted linear fashion. Anyone who thinks otherwise is fooling himself.

That's the gist of both articles. The deeper question is this: Why do we believe that multitaking is better than focus? In part I think it's because our culture demands productivity, and multitasking is a sort of productivity theater: It makes our managers think we're productive because it gives the impression of furious constant activity. Alas, it makes us think we're productive as well, when in fact most of that furious constant activity is just us dodging what we really ought to be doing.

I've seen this effect in myself: When I'm working on something and hit a difficult spot, the less disciplined parts of me start looking for a context change. Hey, I haven't read email for awhile…hey, wasn't I supposed to call Keith? Hey, there's that corner of the basement that I keep meaning to tidy up…and so I drop my current task precisely when it would benefit the most from renewed and intensified focus.

This is hardly a modern phenomenon; what's different is that in the past it was considered a temptation to scatterbrained-ness and a failing inherent in weak minds. Today it's considered the hallmark of a truly modern intellect. Modern, sure, but hardly efficient: Allowing yourself this sort of unwarranted context change trains the mind to bounce from the easiest parts of one project to the easiest parts of another, making little genuine progress and getting very little to the finish line.

Much of the blame falls to a modern educational system that doesn't reward focus, followed by overworked managers who lack the time, the tools, and the gut instincts to understand “how things are going” in their organizations. HR doesn't help; people who insist on the time and the solitude to focus are often disparaged as “not team players” even when the work in question is not essentially collaborative. In my experience, most real productivity is achieved during “heads down” time, and most “teamwork” cooks down to kibitzing. In fact, the most productive meetings I recall were the ones where that obnoxious guy kept yelling “focus!” (Most of the time, that obnoxious guy was me.)

Flow follows focus. Systematically breaking focus leads to a state of mind that, irrespective of what it happens to be doing, is constantly wondering whether it should be doing something else. This way lies madness; nay; this is already madness. Resist it with everything you can muster.