“Just One Thing at a Time” – More on the Myth of Multitasking (reflecting on Cathy Davidson, Now You See It)
Cathy Davidson loves, loves, loves everything digital. “She likes anything that departs from the customary way of doing things, especially the customary way of educating children.” Her new book is Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. She leads an interdisciplinary program at Duke.
But Annie Murphy Paul pretty much rejects everything about her view and approach in her Slate.com article: Who’s Afraid of Digital Natives? – Let’s not get intimidated by kids and their Internet savvy. She especially rejects Davidson’s fascination with the idea that the digital age is teaching us how to multitask. Here are brief excerpts from the article:
Her position ignores the inflexible and near-universal limits on our working memory, which allow us to hold only a few items of information in our consciousness at a time, or the work of researchers like Clifford Nass of Stanford University. “Human cognition is ill-suited both for attending to multiple input streams and for simultaneously performing multiple tasks,” Nass has written. In other words, people are inherently lousy at multitasking. Contrary to the notion that those who’ve grown up multitasking a lot have learned to do it well, Nass’s research has found that heavy multitaskers are actually less effective at filtering out irrelevant information and at shifting their attention among tasks than others.
…focusing one’s attention, gathering and synthesizing evidence, and constructing a coherent argument are skills as necessary as they were before—in fact, more necessary than ever, given the swamp of baseless assertion and outright falsehood that is much of the Web. Some day not too far in the future, the digital natives may find themselves turning down the music, shutting off the flickering screen, silencing the buzzing phone and sitting down to do just one thing at a time.
“Just one thing at a time.” In Rework, Fried and Hannson write about the value of the “alone zone.”
You should get in the alone zone. Long stretches of alone time are when you’re most productive. When you don’t have to mind-shift between various tasks, you get a boatload done.
During alone time, give up instant messages, phone calls, e-mail, and meetings. Just shut up and get to work. You’ll be surprised how much more you get done.
Here’s what I know. When I close my e-mail program, close Safari, put on just the right kind of soft/truly quiet background music, open a book, and dig in, with no interruptions, I seem to “get” the book better.
Here’s what I have come to think – at least about myself. I really can’t do two things at once. I just can’t.
But, I could be wrong. For a more positive/objective take on Davidson and her new book, check out The Science of Attention Spans by Casey Schwartz at The Daily Beast/Book Beast.