Tag Archives: Productivity

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.

The Line Between Imitation and Inspiration

One of the ideas that I’ve been thinking about over the last couple of weeks is the internet and how that relates to the proliferation of ideas in relation to the pure creation of ideas. I think that one of the characteristics of the modern, digital age is that it is much more difficult to create in a vacuum. It’s difficult to achieve what I call “pure” creation. In general, ideas all of origins and those with a digital trail are very easy to follow. In thinking about myself and my daily process, I’ve realized that often times I forget where an idea originated from simply because I read through a lot of content. On daily basis, I skim through about 50-100 titles of articles, blog posts, and news headlines. I skim through about 20-30 of those pieces. I read through about 5-10 of those particular pieces. It’s easy to tell that I can’t always sift through all of those in order to find out where an idea that I’m thinking about, came from and that calls into question whether I’ve been inspired by something or whether I’m just imitating something I’ve already read.

Imitation is something that I think is just a consequence of the Internet. You can find just about about any story in a thousand if not more different places on the web and that obviously means that your attempt to imitate an idea isn’t all that worthwhile. It will just get lost in the shuffle and the adage is true. An imitation is nice, but it’s never quite as good as the original. I think that the line between imitation and inspiration is difficult for some people to ascertain. It should be obvious that we should strive to be inspired by things and strive to create something new. For me one of the effective ways to keep the line in mind is to always “give credit where credit is do.” We grow up in school always being told to cite our sources and that’s great for formal pieces, but people often forget that citing a source doesn’t always have to mean creating a document with a title, body, and footer. It’s not necessary. Whenever I write something, I’m just diligent in making sure that I’m citing the origins of my ideas, and whenever possible linking to where an idea came from. In that way, I know almost instantaneously whether I’m just rewriting something or writing something that was brought about by inspiration. I think that if you know the line between imitation and inspiration then that lends itself to helping you to not fall into the hole of attempting to mimic someone’s success in place of doing something that actually matters to you. 

Your Work, It’s Value and Self-Appreciation

Over the last couple of months, I’ve come to realize a couple of things about what it means to be your most productive and how that relates to the value you put into what you do. As always, this particular idea was motivated by the many ideas of Merlin Mann. On a base level, one of his primary focuses is how important it is to value your time and attention. The concept of the tragedy of the commons transcends into many different facets of your life. For Merlin, a modern day problem has arisen from the Internet and our ability to be available around the clock. There is no sort of inherent limit to how much people can occupy your attention. If you’ve been watching some of the talks I’ve posted here, you know that Merlin’s put a lot of thought into this. For me, the takeaway is that the value you put into your time and attention is the value that translates to the your colleagues, your friends, and the acquaintances in your life. If you don’t set limits, then people continue to take advantage of your time and attention; therefore, its value decreases. It’s synonymous with a company’s stock price. It does have something to do with the actual company and its processes, but really it is influenced by people’s perception of a variety of factors, including what the general outlook is for a particular company. This is a lead into the topic I want to discuss today.

I truly feel that short of making it to the top of your field, you have to the be the one to constantly value your work because inevitably whether it be in a job or some other role, your work will start to be taken for granted. It’s a terrible feeling to know that you’re almost considered a “cog in the system,” when in actuality your absence would  make a large group of people’s jobs several times more difficult. Not only this, but I believe that when you’re not valuing your work and it’s not being valued by others, the quality of your work will invariably start to drop. This is concerning because anyone’s goal is generally to do the best work that they can do, regardless their career, hobbies or interests.

People especially need to be wary of this in that transition from a full-time academic student to a full-time employee. As a student, you constantly have the benefit of having your work valued by your peers, professors, and academic community at large. If you do a great job, your work is valued as such, and that, therefore, is a part of the continued motivation you need to continue to do great work. This generally doesn’t transfer over well into the workplace, in which most people aren’t directly producing a product or providing a service. Merlin Mann likes to use the term “knowledge worker” which he coined from Peter Drucker. This defines people who take knowledge and do something with it as an occupation, they had value to it. These are the works who likely fall into this situation of a lack of validation of one’s work. One of the reasons why I became such an active writer with a set of wide-ranging, self-employed projects was because the perceived value of my own work was dropping during the course of my active job search and it really became something that was gaining momentum more quickly than I was comfortable with so I decided to take initiative. I took initiative for two reasons. The first was of course to value my work so that it’s value could appreciate once again. The second was just simply to continue to utilize my background and skills towards the areas of value to me in order to produce great work. The value of your work and your personal brand are ultimately defined by yourself. It’s so very important to value the work that you do and to continue to produce great work. If you value what you do, then your work will be valued.

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 Expansion and Contraction Project Method



A tenant of good writing is brevity. If you’re like me, then this hasn’t always been mastered quality. Nonetheless, I’ve realized that there is a value to be had in putting every possible idea out there and to trim down once you have the panoramic view. I started with writing, but have realized that there is something to be said for the so called, “Expansion and Contraction Project Method,” and you’ve guessed right that this is geared towards projects rather than writing, though the idea did originate from writing. Whenever I start a new project I’ve seen a lot of value in essentially building it up as much as possible. I brainstorm every possible idea, action, or addition that can be apart of the project and even follow through with most of these despite the fact that many of the components get removed in the contraction phase. Contraction is either an ongoing process or the final stage of a project. The general idea behind the concept is build up and then shape or expand and then contract. I’m not sure if there is already a phrase coined for the idea, but I’ll coin it now and I think that for anyone seeking a more efficient way of tackling tasks take some time consider the Expansion and Contraction Project Method. 

“Scared Shitless” (Webstock 2011), Merlin Mann

Merlin Mann is a writer, speaker, and broadcaster from San Fransisco. He is known for such things as Inbox Zero and the Hipster PDA. I have talked about both of these topics in the past. Mr. Mann’s self-proclaimed goal is to develop positive habits that allow people to be their most productive, yes, but more to the point, their most creative. If you can’t already tell, I really admire his work and you should definitely look into some of his current works and writing (MerlinMann.com).

Aside from his Inbox Zero talk at Google, “Scared Shitless” is arguably one of my favorite talks by Merlin Mann. It is simply a must watch. Merlin tells us how he learned to love to be scared of everything… you have to watch it to really get it and it’s definitely worth your time. It’s a relatively short 27 minutes or so and will most certainly have a profound impact on your outlook on life. Enjoy and once again go to MerlinMann.com.

Thanks for the great insights, Merlin.

Limit Your Phone for an Increase in Productivity

So a few days ago, I read an article on Gizmodo about how one blogger made his iPhone better by crippling it down to essentially a simple feature phone. He deleted all of his apps and restricted use of Safari and other default applications. His premise was that he couldn’t handle infinity in his pocket. When I read articles like that, I generally tend to take them with a grain of salt. It is a bit impractical and overdone. I don’t know why you’d buy such an expensive phone, only to cripple it severely. Nonetheless, I was intrigued by the idea.

In looking at my phone, I realized that I honestly don’t use about 80% of the applications I’ve downloaded in conjunction with default apps and features in Android 4.0, Ice Cream Sandwhich. Not only this, but that all of these apps are distracting and take up both my flash storage and memory. The conclusion is that there is something to be gained in productivity and smartphone efficiency by streamlining your device as much as possible. After deleting a massive amount of applications, limiting my homescreens to just one, and streamlining my Android’s settings, I’ve found myself more productive and more efficient. It’s easier on psychological level to deal with less and I feel more secure in the scenario, should it arise, of losing my phone. With cloud synchronization, Google backup, and a simplified phone, I find my Android device much more approachable. It works for me rather than working for the phone.

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