Single-tasking Series: Part 1 – Does Anyone Have My Attention?

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Is modern living spreading your mental faculties like too little non-dairy butter substitute over too much gluten-free toast?

That’s the gist of this entire series of posts really.

To start with, take a look at the Carte Blanche Web 2.0 segment from a few weeks ago:

This piece has already generated a fair bit of comment on the local blogosphere (note to self: must find a better word for this) so I’m going to refrain (for now at least) from discussing how it missed the mark.Instead, with regard to the topic of multi-tasking, a couple of quotes stand out for me:

Dave Duarte: “The pace of change now is not only unforeseen, it is unmanageable. So we’ve got so much stuff coming at us, the expectation for us to keep up with it is not really realistic. “

Rafiq Phillips: “It’s continuous, it’s always happening. Someone is always asking you a question or asking you to send them an email. You’re always communicating…Continuous partial attention, that’s what it’s about, because you’re always busy with something.”

That last line especially – always busy. partial attention.

Gail Curtis (CEO Saatchi & Saatchi SA): “What the new generation is doing and particularly the youth market, they’re doing their homework, they’re talking on the mobile phone they’re playing games and they’re watching TV. So they’re multitasking and working very, very quickly.”

Working very, very quickly – but what’s the quality of output like?

What I’m (unsubtly) trying to point out, is the bias towards multitasking in the digital age and the presumption that an increased number of inputs sources and output mechanisms equates to increased productivity and efficiency.

I’d have to say that in my own experience this is simply not the case.

In the past 10 years I have effectively (and unwittingly) reconditioned my brain to function through continuous partial attention – constantly shifting focus and spreading efforts across multiple simultaneous tasks.

In effect, I have cultivated an attention deficit and I know I’m not the only one.

Do you find yourself increasingly stretching your attention budget?

Can you honestly say that doing more things simultaneously makes you more efficient?

PS – As an example of the multi-task overload I’m talking about, right at this minute I have open and active:

  • 8 Firefox tabs,
  • 2 MS Word documents,
  • an MS Visio diagram,
  • a Visual Studio project,
  • my RSS feed reader,
  • My email client and two individual emails opened for editing,
  • MSN Messenger with 2 conversation windows,
  • a notepad text file(with some javascript code I’m playing with)
  • and a Windows Explorer window.

That’s around 20 tasks competing for my attention and I wouldn’t consider that above the norm.

120 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. {Quick Audit}

    * 7 Tabs on Mozilla
    * Email Client + 2 emails 65% complete
    * Buffering 4 videos on Youtube
    * 3 Word documents
    * Busy reading my RSS feeds
    * 2 Spreadsheets
    * while trying to install new software

    Been working since 7:15am and had 7 tasks to complete, yet I have only managed to finish 3, and the other 4 are 70% complete (I think)

  2. Michael Salzwedel

    Err, I think this pursuit of single-tasking is a weak excuse to try and relieve the tension of modern-day productivity pressures. These days you can’t just sit back and do one thing and mutter to yourself “aah, i’m the king of single-tasking. i feel whole and at ease. i’m so liberated right now… aaah, let me bask in the mental serenity…”

    “single-tasking” is simply a panacea for stress, and although you can sit at your desk and say “wow, i feel so great, i’ve been fully concentrating on just this one thing for the whole day”, you’ll soon discover that your lack of attention given to other pressing tasks has negatively impacted not only the quantity of your productivity for the day but also the overall effectiveness of it.

    a little analogy: a car has many parts that all work together simultaneously to result in motion. what if a car adopted a single-tasking approach: “hmm, i think today we’ll focus on just the wheels and make sure they’re turning nice and proper,” and the rest of the essential components of the driving process are ignored? the car wouldn’t move at all. overall productivity is measured by the effectiveness with which all the component parts of the task at hand work together.

    what needs to happen is intelligent multi-tasking. figure out exactly how much attention every task needs, and give it that much and only that much, and hopefully you’ll reach a productivity equilibrium.

    single-tasking? pffft! old-school!

  3. Alice

    That’s crazy!
    I multi-tasked times thrice when I first read it:
    -Obama article
    -UK news
    And then had to re-scan afterwards to actually get a clear picture of what you were saying.
    What I’m trying to say is; I agree.
    Also, I think that a combination of multi-tasking has made my memory disgustingly bad. But that’s another story.

    Great subject, Ravens.
    You ‘dazzled’ us.

  4. IronMan

    I’ll comment properly in a moment, just busy with something else quick…

  5. I would agree, i believe that if…

  6. Fully agree, my experience is the same as yours – much more productive when concentrating adequately rather than spreading attention and focus across different places.

    Good post.

  7. Single-Tasking is a great term! Nice one Darren.

    I’m working with an MBA student who is doing her thesis on the subject of Attention Economics – managing people in a time of scarce Attention (or rampant organizational ADD), and have even included the subject as a compulsory module for all undergrad commerce students at UCT. This is a real issue for the future to be aware of.

  8. Hey Dave, I’m hoping to discuss the deficit in the attention economy in a later post. It would have been up already…if I’d single-tasked it.

  9. Nina

    I Like what this Raven “Quotheth”
    I think this “partial attention” is a modern sickness that insiduously corrodes our awareness, our meaningful engagement with each other and information and here I can relate to Alice, whose multitasking has riddled her memory with “lost files”. We’re not getting the juice, the magic anymore and perhaps misguidedly fill up with more multitasking to satisfy an insatiable hunger for connection…We may also get to appease that other beast, performance anxiety, whose perameters are sadly, not always set by ourselves…
    Good Post Darren,
    was the highlight of my day while I was struggling with story ideas, working out a budget….

  10. Great post. I think you should write more and more. I really like when you`re writing. This is so good :)

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