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Drawbacks of Multitasking

I took a break from IMing with a coworker and turned down my music for a minute to read this NYTimes piece about multitasking. I didn’t get through the whole thing because I got an email but I gather it’s about the downsides of trying to concentrate on several things at once.

The point is well taken when any one task, such as driving, requires quick reaction time. Our brains can only afford enough resources to concentrate on one thing at a time. On the other hand, that email can wait a minute while I surf the web. And newer communications methods like IM tolerate asynchrony better.

Both the technology and the social protocol expect up-to-the-minute, but not up-to-the-second, updates. When using these new technologies, we do sacrifice real-time responsiveness, but in return we get multiple collaborative modalities of near-real-time communication.

It turns out that real-time responsiveness is just a design constraint on systems that interact physically. While the research points to real detriments of multitasking on performance in a physical environment, that in itself is not an argument against multitasking.

Much more to the point, other research summarized by the Times points to considerable time lag between interruption and resumption of serious thinking:

In a recent study, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages.

One difference between digital and analog workflows, I’ve found, is that in the old system you would write something out before editing, much less before worrying about layout or formatting. If you couldn’t keep the thread of the work in mind while writing it, the solution was to go back and outline first, then try again from the top.

Now, the writing tool is the editing tool, and in a lot of cases is also the formatting tool. Even on this blog, where the format is set by rules in the style sheet, I switch between writing, editing and looking at the preview for an overall perspective. I check each post several times before publishing, and I’ll admit, I sometimes continue to edit after publishing, not necessarily because it’s needed, but because I can. The whole idea of a finishing something just means that editing has died down.

The same is true of music recording, where now the rough mix begins as soon as tracks are recorded. I get the benefit of hearing exactly what’s needed in the mix as it currently stands, with the benefit of being able to go back and change the mix if it’s just not working at very little cost of time or effort. As in a paradigm shift, there is an existing theory of the situation that has some inertia. When findings conflict with it, they are questioned and not the theory (e.g. I spend some time trying to fix a sound.) But at some point the situation reaches critical mass and the theory must be overturned (e.g. I scrap the mix, but I can still use the underlying tracks). New digital tools incorporate this kind of radical change into the normal workflow.

When I get interrupted, I often transition back into more concentrated work by looking at what I’ve done from an editing or presentation perspective. The tools make this easy. So while I may get distracted more often, I can cope with it more easily now.

The other thing to remember is that not all “serious work” is done while measurably focusing on a project. In fact, even aside from overall productivity being dependent on comfort, there is something crucially productive in down time. Hang on, I’ll explain more… another couple edits… and just a peek at I Can Has Cheezburger?

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