May 4, 2011 -- Overwhelmed by the endless stream of email and constant cacophony of phone calls? Are you powerless against the pull of Google and the beckoning of your BlackBerry's blinking red light?
Read an excerpt from "The Digital Diet" below.
Something from Nothing
Now that you've simplified your tech environment and pushed aside those devices for a bit, let's examine an area of increasing study: multitasking. Are we better or worse off as a result of multiple technology inputs into our lives? Do we actually get more done?
Those who say we're often better off, like Jonah Lehrer, tech writer and author of "How We Decide," claim that stimulating our brains in different ways can make us more creative and open to new ideas. Lehrer says we should sometimes put down our shields when it comes to resisting more high-tech influences in our lives, so that we'll be able to explore their effect on us in a practical way, see where it leads. And I believe that can be true -- it's a bit like freestyle jazz, where our minds check out a travel website and then our bank account and then send a text and then read a friend's Twitter feed. Certainly it opens up many avenues of discovery.
On the other hand, some experts say all the digital multitasking hinders our ability to complete each independent task successfully. A study from Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, France, published in the journal Science in April 2010 found that the part of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex essentially divides in two when faced with more than one task. But throw in more than two tasks and the brain gets a bit baffled. The phrase "jack of all trades and master of none" comes to mind. It's not that multitasking is entirely bad (and often it's quite necessary), but splitting your brain power can be taxing. Be aware of when it's too much, when your mind is beginning to feel overwhelmed. When that happens, take a break. Close every window except one.
The main problem with massive multitaskers, according to a Stanford University study from 2009, is that they're terrible at filtering out the stuff that doesn't matter. The study's authors found this group easily distracted and incapable of ignoring irrelevant information. (This likely comes as no surprise to anyone with a teenaged son or daughter.) The researchers first ranked people's multitasking intensity by asking how many types of media they used simultaneously (print, TV, computer, phone, text, etc.). On the low end were people who reported using in the neighborhood of 1.5 types of media at the same time. Serious multitaskers were juggling more like four. Sound familiar? For the test, they presented people with a series of red and blue rectangles, blanked them out, then showed them again and asked if the red ones had changed position. The high multitaskers couldn't ignore the distraction of the blue rectangles and often failed to get it right.
'The Digital Diet': Book Excerpt
The researchers found that people caught up in multitasking constantly crave information but don't do well at processing it all. They referred to two distinct ways of receiving information: exploring and exploiting. Explorers (multitaskers) get a thrill from more and more data, while exploiters would rather ponder the information at hand. What about simply being faster at switching to a different task? Well, the researchers also asked the participants to classify a letter as a vowel or consonant or a number as even or odd. Indeed, even while trying to switch between questions the high multitaskers were slower. Much slower. No doubt to their amazement.
Their conclusion? For most of us, the more gadgets, the more distractions, the less effective we are. Does this mean we have to go through life in a purely linear fashion, fully completing every single task before taking on the next one? Of course not. Some multitasking is unavoidable. (As the father of an infant I know all about trying to accomplish as much as I can in a short amount of time.) But are other people questioning your productivity even as you feel busier than ever? The point is to keep tasks manageable and to a minimum. Rank their priority. Be efficient in following each task through to completion, rather than piling on more. Know your limits and recognize when multitasking is becoming detrimental. For example, send that e-mail to a colleague first, then check any incoming text messages. Take that phone call and then update your calendar.
Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Sieberg From the book THE DIGITAL DIET by Daniel Sieberg, published by Three Rivers Press, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., New York.