Distracted by Talk About Multitasking

A recent debate on HBR.org, where I used to write a blog, has me scratching my head. Peter Bregman highlights the downsides of multitasking, citing both his own personal experiment in minimizing distractions and a smattering of research on why we shouldn’t do too many things at once. His fellow blogger David Silverman retorts with a point-by-point defense of multitasking, concluding “we need [it] as much as we need air.” As usual in recent discussions of this sort, much of the focus is on the pros and cons of electronic devices.

Both men are right, of course. There’s little to quibble with in either post. But I must confess I don’t really understand the collective point of this debate. It’s like arguing for sleep and for wakefulness. Yes, we need both. Thanks for that tip.

Negotiating a balance between concentration and distraction is one of the fundamentals of being human. We learn early in life how to self-monitor so that we can do all the things we must while managing to do the most important ones well. That’s the practical side of the equation. There’s also the question of pleasure: Spend too much time on one thing and you get bored; spend too little time on many things and you don’t feel a sense of fulfillment.

Children learn this basic principle as they play. Parents learn it as they raise children. Laborers learn it as they work. Everyone refines his or her approach with age. Most don’t bother to articulate the phenomenon, given that it’s just part of the fabric of existence. But articulating it isn’t hard, if one cares to bother.

A student of mine, who’s a mother, recently put it well: “Sometimes I need to focus on my daughter and sit with her while we do something simple. And sometimes I have to do 10 things at once to make sure my child gets what she needs. It’s like what you do in class with us as the teacher. It’s just what you have to do.” The wisdom of this observation is plain.

Electronic gadgets, complex and powerful as they may be, are merely another ingredient in the daily soup of concentration and distraction. They’re fascinating and sometimes frustrating, but I usually find research and reports about the “mental price” such devices extract from us to be utterly useless. Like most mind candy, the information tastes sweet for a few minutes but eventually leaves me hungry.

For instance, what am I supposed to do with the stray research finding that multitasking reduces a person’s productivity by 40%? Whether or not the methods of the study were rigorous enough to actually support the broad applicability of that data point, the information gets me nowhere. Ultimately, I have to navigate the waters of concentration and distraction in a particular context with a particular set of evolving challenges — month to month, day to day, minute to minute. The statistic is itself a distraction I relegate to the trash heap while I get back to teaching my student and my student gets back to caring for her daughter, both of us mono- and multitasking all the while.

And as for that word: “multitasking.” It may be a term that sprang up with the advent of computers, but it is not a new concept (Silverman, take note). Humans have long known what it was like to have many balls in the air at once, way before anyone had even invented a ball of the sort that one juggles. And people have had to reflect on this reality and refine their approach to it, instinctively, for just as long.

The more time I spend teaching students things that are not obvious (how to write an effective paragraph, how to solve an algebraic equation), the less time I’m willing to make for distracting discussions about what anyone with consciousness and an ounce of self-awareness can see for himself. That said, a friend of mine (completely unrelated to the present topic) recently issued me this wise reminder: “What’s obvious to you may be a revelation to some.”

She’s right, of course. We all have our blind spots. But no matter how I slice the issue of multitasking at this moment of idle musing on it, I still come to the same (perhaps obvious) conclusion: If you’re seeking revelations from bloggers about when, how, and why to concentrate on one thing at a time, your deficits in the simple, human art of self-reflection are very deep indeed — deeper than any discussion of multitasking in the age of gadgets can possibly fill.

Chew on that later. Right now someone who really needs you is calling. Click away from this silly blog post and get back to her.

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