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The Myth of Multitasking, the Internet, Media, Focus and Productivity

The Myth

Multitasking is one of those terms that gets pushed around a lot. We tend to put a lot of value into the ability to be able to work on more than one task at the same time. It’s a skill that gets listed on resumes. It’s a skill that employers are after and it’s an ability to that we expect people to have in general. For me, I’ve always been forced to ask myself the question whether or not multitasking is a real thing. This is one of those skills that’s taken at face value and rarely ever thought about. If you think about it though, you realize that multitasking is really more of a myth than an attainable skill. I won’t deny that maybe there’s a handful of people in the world with the attention, focus, and brain power to actually think about and work on two separate tasks or projects at the same time, but for the majority of people I think it’s highly unlikely and untrue.


A Redefinition

I propose redefining what it means to multitask into a more realistic understanding. For me, multitasking entails having the ability to juggle multiple tasks and projects at the same time, but not actually working on more than one thing at any particular time. Sure, you can juggle multiple projects and keep yourself organized, but I highly doubt whether anyone can actually take in more than one “information stream” (coining this as a term referring to all of the information associated with a task, project, media source, or person etc.) and be able to act on those two or more information streams and further interpret them. The example I like to use is whether or not a person watching two TV shows at the same time can tell you what happened in both programs and further interpret what happened in both. Even a person can, I’d surely argue that they won’t be able to complete either task to the same ability as if they had only watched one television program. Under my understanding of multitasking, many people do have this skill and it’s something that can be developed. The reality is though that with this understanding when a person multitasks they are good at moving from one task to another and their associated focus, smoothly and with little resistance.


The Internet is something that makes it very difficult for people to maintain their focus on a particular task. Nowadays many of us suffer from information overload and those of us who are effective at dealing with this overload are the ones who are capable of closing the figurative knob a little. If you’re writing something, you don’t need to know what e-mails you’ve just received, whose messaged you on Facebook, or what the latest trending topics are. You just don’t. The Internet is meant to be a tool, not a detriment. The only thing you should have opened are webpages associated with your particular writing, task, or project. This is difficult for me to do, so I can only imagine that it is for other people. I’ve seen the negative effect that information overload has on my writing. I’ve gone back and I’ve noticed that there are certain posts of mine that are much more fragmented then fluid. The cause of this has been my inability to focus on the particular topic I’m writing about. You have to be willing to cut the information addiction. When all else fails, disconnect completely from the web. In a previous post about procrastination, I listed this as one of the ways to cope with putting off work. One of the major themes you’ll find in the study of productivity, if you will, is the value of simplicity and limits. You don’t need the all of the vast information available to mankind on the Internet to do great work, you need your mind and the bits and pieces of information that are necessary to whatever your doing. You further don’t need some complicated and complex personal productivity system to stay organized. Sometimes all you need is pen and paper.


A Quick Sidenote: Music and Work

Music is one of those types of media that can be really inspiring. I can admit that when I write I’m usually listening to some music in order to help me set a particular tone in my writing. It can be really helpful. That being said I’ve made a significant observation about what type of music helps and what kind of music can deter your writing/focus. In short, I’ve noted that I can only focus and listen to music when the piece is instrumental. Whenever I try to listen to a vocal piece, it parts my focus between my writing and the lyrics in the song. I think that this is something that is true of a lot of people and even if  it’s not, there’s is something to be said for noting the kind of habits that help your creative workflow and hinder it. Choose an instrumental piece next time and maybe you’ll see a change in your work.

Who Moved My Brain?, Merlin Mann (Rutgers Talk)

If you’ve been following my blog for a while now, you know that Merlin Mann is speaker/writer who I really admire, particularly for his work on 43folders.com in the realm of productivity. This is another great talk by Mr. Mann given at Rutgers University regarding the value of our time. It’s a must watch for anyone whose willing and understands that he has the ability and the right to take control of his time. Our time and attention are limited. We can’t let it go to waste.

Productivity, the Internet, and The External Brain


Today, I’d like to take a moment to introduce my concept of the “External Brain.” It was an idea that I had developed a number of years ago, inspired by the Evernote application, which I solidified when I presented my presentation to the TEDxGeorgetown board in 2011. For a draft copy of my presentation use this link. Let’s start to break this down.


My Early Thoughts

In starting to formulate the concept behind the External Brain, I focused in on the topic of productivity and the Internet. For me, one of the biggest detriments to my productivity has always been the distraction offered by tasks which are important, but not urgent, or worse, urgent, but not important. What does this mean? Well, I’ve been a fan of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habit’s of Highly Effective People for a number of years. The book is as it’s titled, a description of the seven habits that successful people have developed. Habit #3 concerns itself with effective time management and it’s in this section that Covey presents us with a four quadrant time management model that breaks up tasks in terms of what’s important and urgent. According to Covey, the tasks that are of the greatest detriment to me are those tasks in quadrants II and III. What this basically comes down to on some level are communications and opportunities. Usually a communication can wait for a response and an opportunity can be pursued later. The focus should be on what is important and urgent. If we connect this to the Internet, we realize that what the Internet has really done is exacerbated this productivity problem. The Internet is a source of seemingly limitless communications in the forms of notifications, instant messages, social networking sites, and, of course, e-mails. It is also a source of an infinite number of opportunities to network, grow, and improve. My first major revelation was that the tool that is the Internet and is meant to improve are productivity has actually impaired it. The net effect is negative an overwhelming number of people.

Stephen Covey’s 4-Quadrant Time Management Model


The Memory Free-Up of Our Generation, The Internet, Design, and PRI

My next step was to take a look at our memory. In the study of psychology, it’s been accepted that the human brain has infinite storage for long-term memory, but of course that memory is not always quickly accessible. Our short-term memory is much more easily accessible and the memory we need in order to be productive and creative. That being said the Internet does now store a lot of the information that people used to memorize. For example, people used to memorize phone numbers. Most people only know their own number nowadays if that. People used to memorize addresses, but, of course, now Google Maps and GPS devices are what we rely on for that information. For me it would seem then, that the Internet has taken a great burden off of us in the form of a storage device. So then the question that comes up is whether or not the Internet then is a good thing or bad thing. Is it a detriment to productivity or an invaluable tool? This is another circumstance in which I’ve been influenced by Merlin Mann. I think that when the Internet first became widely adopted, people came up with some very elaborate solutions to simplify our lives and improve our productivity, but in reality ended up having the opposite effect. Simplicity and transparency are the qualities of tools that help you to be your most productive. We over-thought the Internet. We ended up being in one of those situations were we weren’t sure how to properly use it to our full benefit. I view the productivity return on the Internet (“PRI”) as following the path of a cubic function. The Internet becomes widely adopted and we see increases in productivity. A few  years later, we see staggering returns or for many people a fall in “PRI” and then there’s the final shift in the cubic function. The trend indicates that it’s really only been recently that we’ve started to see the real benefits of the Internet. There is a new emphasis on designing the Internet around how we think in order to reap the greatest use from the Internet and we see this from the e-mail clients we use to the social networks we use. I see this in the new Outlook e-mail by Microsoft and the strides in professional networking made by Linkedin.


The External Brain


The concept for the External Brain really came from Evernote. Evernote is one of those applications that I can’t say enough about. It just makes life easier. It is the quintessential note-taking application that has a solution for every problem and the best part of it is that it’s everywhere. It’s on every computer and device that I use so I always have my data and my notes accessible. That was the aim of Evernote when it first came onto the note-taking app scene. Evernote was meant to be your External Brain. You would throw anything you wanted to remember later into Evernote and you could rest assured that you could pull it up instantaneously. The general idea behind External Brain is to use the Internet as a repository for everything you don’t need to be concerned with right now. It’s easily accessible, ubiquitous, cumulative, and has a seemingly unlimited amount of storage. It eliminates the need to memorize, worry, or be concerned with irrelevant information. One of the major tenant behind productivity is to always be focused on the task at hand and the External Brain is methodology that can allow you to accomplish that.


Getting Things Done and Ubiquitous Capture

Getting Things Done, by David Allen is one of those books that has something to offer everyone. For me the major takeaway, is the idea of ubiquitous capture. Ubiquitous capture entails putting everything that isn’t either important or urgent into once centralized location that you can go back to at a later time and then process. The External Brain, on the Internet, is one location for all of these things. It just makes sense. Evernote is one of those applications that you can use as a medium, but the External Brain is really a concept that can be implemented with any number of tools. It’s already something that’s taking on ground. When you think about the computers we’re carrying in our pockets and the innovations of tomorrow, such as Google Glass, we’re going to see this concept implementing the External Brain on a much grander scale, but right now when you pair it up with medium, such as Evernote, and a methodology, such as GTD, you can see yourself becoming more productive and creative when you focus on those key tasks in your life.

Evernote logo

The Internet Archive Wayback Machine

Apple.com Circa 2008

So linked here is a screen copy of Apple.com circa 2008, as we see the original iPhone and iPod Touch being displayed on the front page, along with the announcement of an Apple Event where we known now that the Macbook Air was announced. This is my way of introducing people to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine. The Internet Archive is a nonprofit institution that seeks to build a “digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form.” The Internet Archive is even as we speak now saving copies of websites for the sake of posterity. It’s a really cool tool that I think everyone should check out and it really gives us a perspective into how far the Internet has come that there’s enough of a history there that it’s worth keeping. The Internet Archive has been one of top tools in the past and even if you’re just looking to see your favorite size from 90s, it’s worth the search. Back to work.

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