multitasking: turning gold to lead

“Multitasking is the alchemy of the 21st Century.” How’s that for a killer quote? That’s from Sherry Turkle, an MIT professor and the author of “Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.”

One of my friends who’s a serious thinker sent me the link to a podcast from the Harvard Business Review. I’m not a big podcast listener but the quote and my friend’s recommendation were enough that I gave it a try. You can listen here, it’s only about a 15-minute interview and totally worth your time.

I jotted some notes as I listened. Here’s what I heard Professor Turkle saying:

“Multitasking is like alchemy, in that it is a fantasy. It’s the fantasy that we could use multitasking to make time multiply. We could have more of it by multitasking. Much like alchemy was an elaborate fantasy, things didn’t workout the way we had fantasized. Every time we do a new task or add a new task our performance in every task degrades a little bit.”

She goes on to say:
“This is a rough realization, because so many of us got used to the idea that we were making time. We felt like masters of the universe as we were doing all of these things at once. Our brains, our bodies rewarded us with a dopamine squirt, a shot of neural chemical that made us feel great every time we added a new task.”

We were rewarded for multitasking by feeling great. But it turned out we were doing worse and worse at everything we did.

Strong words from Professor Turkle. And I agree.

She has some great ideas in the podcast for what to do so that you aren’t buying into this 21st Century alchemy. I’ll let you listen and maybe like me you’ll buy her book. I’m working on getting an interview with her because this is pretty important stuff.

Here are the takeaways I’d suggest based on what I’m doing to try to deal with both the demands and realities of my work:

Know yourself. I do not shift focus quickly. So I try to schedule calls and emails separately from thinking or writing time. I am a morning person. Late afternoon is not my ideal sitting-with-a-blank-page time. I need to interact with people in the late afternoon or I’m a goner. The only way I can manage this is to block out time to write/think and other times to communicate/connect.

Let people know what you’re doing. I’ve done a terrible job of this, but I hereby announce that I’m trying to read email mornings, midday and late afternoon. You’ll catch me other times but that’s what seems smart to me. That constant pinging and seeing email makes me crazy. So I plan to close my email client in between times.

Handle it once. I “knew” this but I really didn’t practice it well. So I relearned it from a client. (I love learning things from clients, proves how smart they really are). Bobby Arkills uses this to help his staff, I don’t think it’s original to Bobby, but he’s who I heard it from at the right time in Oneicity’s lifecycle. So much of the churn of multitasking seems to be communicating about things you’ve communicated about (or in my case often miscommunicated or incompletely communicated). Deal with it once in a clear way.

Use the right channel. Some people are email people. Other people are phone people. Some communications are best on the phone. Others work with a quick text. Whatever. All tools are not equal. Your mileage will vary.

Here’s something that she said that I can’t get out of my brain:

“We’re too busy communicating to think.
We’re too busy communicating to connect.
We’re too busy communicating to create in ways that matter.”

Couldn’t agree more.

So, what about you? Do you agree with Professor Turkle and me? Many of us feel like we have to multitask. How do you manage your workflow to deal with the realities of over-communicating? I love hearing what you think.


Steve Thomas
Partner, Oneicity


Hat tip to John Hull for the sending me the podcast.

(photo credit: LAC/BAC)

Steve Thomas

Steve Thomas

17 thoughts on “multitasking: turning gold to lead”

  1. Guilty on all counts. Professor Turkle’s wise insights help explain why I frequently end the day feeling like I accomplished little, even though I tried to do a whole lot — simultaneously. Today I will try mono-tasking and see how it goes. I might even blog about it.

  2. @Rebekah–Thanks for joining in! Once I began thinking of “multitasking” as really “focus-shifting” then it became easier for me to face the fact that I don’t. My team was more receptive to the concept that it wasn’t my inability to multitask, it is that I don’t focus shift. Keep me posted on how this changes the way you’re working. It’s changing mine.
    st

  3. Scott Nickell

    Great post. I’ve been reading a lot about our, (the BIG collective), need to simplify, slow down, focus. And this resonates so well with all that I’ve been feeling in my professional and personal life. It’s funny how “old wisdom” like “jack-of-all-trades – master-of-none” keep proving themseves. Thanks Steve!

  4. @Scott — I hadn’t connected this multitasking issue with the conventional wisdom of the dangers of “master-of-none.” Thanks for sharing your thinking.
    st

  5. Deborah Gohrke

    Useful, timely information. And I, like you, couldn’t agree more with these observations.

    “We’re too busy communicating to think.
    We’re too busy communicating to connect.
    We’re too busy communicating to create in ways that matter.”

    This is somewhat related to Nickolas Carr’s book. “The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains.” Link to his controversial and slightly infamous article: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”
    http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/07/is-google-making-us-stupid/6868/

    The inability to focus for long stretches of time has become a real challenge. I used to love reading material that required careful consideration of complex or ambiguous subjects. Reading that you actually have to struggle to understand. Now, forget nuance or subtlety, if not struck by lightning, I’m on the next thing.

    When I bring this topic up in classes, the people most “connected” technologically, typically younger people, are the quickest to object and the most resistant to even considering the idea. “Me thinks thou dost protest to much” comes to mind. That we are masters of the universe is a difficult myth to give up. However, aging makes it easier (or forces) us to let go of a lot of our personal power myths. Did that last comment just make me sound old? OK, old, but not cranky.

  6. Steve, what struck me was the thought that maybe what we think is “communication” is often more like “chatter”. Chatter can be comforting, but not alway connecting.

    On another point, I remember a vivid lesson from a book on time management many years ago, I think it was by the former president of the “We try harder” Avis. He said never touch a piece of paper twice. If it’s in your inbox, deal with it. Don’t glance at it and pick it up again tomorrow and the next day, week, etc. Deal with it. Move it to to out box, solve it, delegate it, trash it, but deal with it.

    Thanks for starting this conversation. It’s golden.

  7. I’ve discussed my e-mail reading schedule on this blog before, no need to rehash it, again. (There, does that get me points for making people go back and read previous articles?)

    Multi-tasking is about context shift. Maybe that’s focus, maybe not. In computer science there is the concept of the “context shift” that takes place in a process thread when a task changes. (i.e. MS Word has the attention of the user, and Internet Explorer is no longer front and center, therefore doesn’t need as much processing power.) So, the human brain works the same way. If you can hold onto the necessary side information for a task while doing something else, you are multi-tasking. If you can’t, you’re not.

    So, bear with me….if you are memorizing the lyrics to a song, you are hearing the music in your head. If you are memorizing the lyrics to TWO songs at once, you have to separate two songs in your head. Now, try three. It’s a Spektorian wall of noise. Dr. Walter Pauk once wrote that the human brain works at 600 words per minute, but people only talk at about 150 wpm, so the listening brain fills itself up with 450 words to make up the space. Multi-tasking is possible UNTIL you run out of words.

  8. @Deborah–I haven’t read Carr’s book (yet) but what I’ve read reinforces the scope of the problem. You raise an interesting question–is it age related (I’ll resist doing my patented: “Those kids today” comment in Cosby voice).
    You NEVER sound cranky, honest, YES.

    Thank you for continuing the conversation. You make us better.
    st

  9. @Brad — yes, you get points for sending people to other posts! Thanks.

    OK–I think I’m following what you’re saying, but let me check: a person can multitask up to the point they reach this “600 word” limit. Hmmm…I’m not sure I agree but I’ll do some more reading.

    For now, I’ll agree but let me ask this: does this deal with the degrading of performance that Turkle describes? Do you think performance (attention, focus) degrade when you’re at the maximum? I think so…but want to know what you think.
    st

  10. Steve, it not only degrades, it destructs. People then compensate by attempting to get lengthy periods of uninterrupted activity. Only to find that all of the people around them are trying to do the same thing. Then, you get “No Meeting Wednesdays”….until people from other organizations find out that you are always available on Wednesdays. And so on…and so on.

    Brad’s Rules:
    – If Brad doesn’t need to be at a meeting, he doesn’t go.
    – If Brad needs a period of uninterrupted activity, he blocks his calendar, and locks his door.
    – If Brad finds out that someone has a WHOLE DAY free, he asks if they have that time blocked.

  11. @ Brad: what about those who think in pictures?

    @ Steve:I find myself doing a lot more chattering than communicating lately! Kind of like @Deborah indicated: perhaps google IS making me stupid! texting is making me insipid, email is making me vapid.

    Time for a good book!

  12. LOL, @Al, really are we going to go down that road? HA HA HA.

    Perhaps it would be better to say that one only uses X% of his thought capacity, and it doesn’t matter what fills up the rest (pictures, words, Jello….there’s always room for Jello)…it’s not being used, anyway?

  13. @Brad — love, love, love your Rules. Seriously good stuff.

    @Brad and @Al, Boys. Seriously Brad, some of our brains don’t work like a computer and there are some let’s call ’em variables.

    I’m with Al, what about those who think in pictures?
    st

  14. Let me start by saying, I’m not a psychologist. The opinions expressed here are strictly those of me, and not of anyone who actually knows what he’s talking about.

    Pictures always take up more space than words, even when compressed. **GRIN** I see that all the time in my PowerPoint slides. A 30KB presentation jumps to 450KB with the insertion of a single piece of clip art.

    Okay, in all seriousness. I think the same rules apply as the word thing. (Going back to my percentages example) Perhaps, there is a correlation between the complexity of the picture, and how many picture thought can be stored in short term memory. If one looks at a simple stick figure drawing (say, a cave painting), it’s not much to say there’s a buffalo, three people with spears, a weird red smudge that might be a pot. One can look at most of a wall of cave paintings and 10 minutes, 20 minutes, 30 minutes later, still have a good idea what is on the wall. However, if one studies a “Where’s Waldo” book, and tries to remember more significant details than the striped hat, the likelihood of getting “lost” is higher.

    Images are more holistic than words, I will say that. And given that the brain is more of a holistic device, perhaps images are easier to remember, but I still think there’s a limit to how many one can work with at any given time.

    Once again, making it up as I go. Love the conversation!

  15. @Brad — Love the conversation as well and making it up as we go isn’t a problem for me. The image conversation takes me to a book I’m reading titled: Moon Walking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything.
    It is fascinating and deals with how we do remember in images, plus a ton of other good stuff. I’ll have to blog on it when I finish.

    So is memory the same thing as “thinking” or processing? Those are the primary “tasks” of multitasking, right?

    Keep flowing guys, it’s fun.
    st

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