Sometimes I apologize to friends or colleagues for being unable to do more than one thing at a time. As if it's a deficiency, and proves I'm stupid. In my heart-of-hearts, though, I don't feel sorry. I like focusing. And last week, on a flight to Boston, as I took off my noise-canceling headphones and came up for air from a focused edit of a report my project is preparing for a funding agency, our project director (who was sitting across the aisle) passed over a section of that morning's New York Times. He was showing me an article titled When the mind wanders, happiness also strays.
The article riffs off a study done by Harvard psychologists Matthew A. Killingsworth and Daniel T. Gilbert, published in Science magazine. The study showed that when people's minds wander, they tend to wander into unhappy territory. Therefore, people are happier if they stay focused on what's before them. They proved this with an iPhone app, naturally, because there's an iPhone app for everything.
But, hey -- sarcasm aside, really -- that means I'm not stupid, right? I'm happy!
Here's my favorite paragraph from the NYT article. It's about what people who aren't psychologists have to say on the topic of focus: "What psychologists call 'flow' -- immersing your mind fully in activity -- has long been advocated by nonpsychologists. 'Life is not long,' Samuel Johnson said, 'and too much of it must not pass in idle deliberation how it shall be spent.' Henry Ford was more blunt: 'Idleness warps the mind.' The iPhone results jibe nicely with one of the favorite sayings of William F. Buckley Jr.: 'Industry is the enemy of melancholy.'"
Perhaps you're familiar with the concept of multitasking. I don't mean the kind computers do; I mean the kind humans do, or are supposed to do according to certain management consultants. This is one of those brain-burps with staying power that purport to be about getting things done. The kind of thing that that seems to ripple regularly out of business schools and into the management 'culture' of unsuspecting organizations, never mind that pretty much everybody else seems to know better.
Here's the three-sentence Wikipedia definition: "Human multitasking is the performance by an individual of appearing to handle more than one task at the same time. The term is derived from computer multitasking. An example of multitasking is listening to a radio interview while typing an email."
Later in the Wikipedia article, author and psychiatrist Richard Hallowell is quoted describing multitasking as a "mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously."
I'm with Dr. Hallowell on that one. I know it's mythical to me. The only 'multitasking' I'm good at is listening to music while I cook, clean, or drive. I can do those tasks while distracted because I've been doing them for so many years that they no longer involve much cognition: they're mostly reflex, muscle memory, sense-and-response. Still, I'd bet that if there were a reliable way to measure, somebody could prove that I don't cook, clean, or drive as well while listening to music as I do when the radio's off.
Managers seem to be hardwired to respond to the myth of multitasking. There was a time in the mid-1990s when every job listing I saw called out multitasking as a desirable trait in prospective employees (and I saw a lot of job listings then, because I was working in UC Berkeley's Human Resources department). Answer e-mail, juggle phone calls, edit a report, manage a few student interns, balance a budget, design a web page, analyze a contract, draft a meeting agenda, normalize a database. A day in the life...
It's a great fantasy if you're a manager: hire one worker, get multiple workers' productivity. The fantasy gets even sillier when it involves a worker whose value is directly tied to her ability to focus and think deeply about a problem. Imagining that such a worker can have her day sliced into modular chunks that can be plugged into any number of projects and problems is ... well, it's just not real.
There's all kinds of mythbusting out on the intertubes about multitasking, so it's hardly necessary for me to do a literature review on the topic. But I will give a shout-out to one of the most practical and thoughtful computer programmers who Writes About Stuff on the intertubes, Joel Spolsky, of "Joel on Software" fame. Spolsky wrote -- nearly ten years ago, in an article titled Human Task Switches Considered Harmful -- about the friction inherent in giving computer programmers more than one project to work on at a time. Spolsky knows a lot about this, because giving programmers tasks to work on is his job. I believe what he writes in this article because it is exactly aligned with my own experience (as a computer programmer, as a colleague of computer programmers, and otherwise). To wit:
"The trick here is that when you manage programmers, specifically, task switches take a really, really, really long time. That's because programming is the kind of task where you have to keep a lot of things in your head at once. The more things you remember at once, the more productive you are at programming. A programmer coding at full throttle is keeping zillions of things in their head at once: everything from names of variables, data structures, important APIs, the names of utility functions that they wrote and call a lot, even the name of the subdirectory where they store their source code. If you send that programmer to Crete for a three week vacation, they will forget it all. The human brain seems to move it out of short-term RAM and swaps it out onto a backup tape where it takes forever to retrieve."
And now, according to a bunch of Harvard psychologists and their iPhone app, that same human brain, deprived of the focus it really really wants, is in a bad mood.
Who needs it? Don't multitask ... be happy.
Thanks to Andrew McMillain & Wikipedia Commons for the image of The Thinker at the San Francisco Legion of Honor.