Attention! Sacrificing Quality for Quantity

Let’s turn a critical eye on one of the most celebrated benefits of technology – its support of multitasking. At home and work, we leverage technology to simultaneously cross items off the ever-growing “To Do” list. The multitasking high has left me restless.

I can no longer stick to task A, I must also be working on task B and watching email. Honestly, focusing all efforts on a single task would make me feel inefficient and lazy. But it may have the opposite results.

This week I read an excerpt from Howard Rheingold’s Net smart, in which he discusses Social Psychologist Clifford Nass’s study that reveals “most media multitaskers to be worse than they thought at multitasking” (37). My initial thought was how can this be? I get everything done.

Nass’s judgment of effectiveness is not based on number of tasks, but rather on how well each task is completed. The jump around behavior described above degrades my attention and thus my performance. Interesting, what else you got Rheingold?

Perhaps the mentality of multitasking places too much emphasis on how we manage time. I was particularly intrigued by Writer Linda Stone’s statement that “our opportunity is to focus on how we manage our attention” (73). Well what does it mean to manage attention? Here’s a quick snap shot of brain function.

There are three essential components of thought process: attention, memory and executive control. Attention and memory functions are relatively self explanatory. The executive control function manages the process of shifting “remembered perceptions from the background to the forefront of your attention – into… working memory” (38). According to Cognitive Psychologist George Miller, people can maintain seven (plus or minus two) pieces of information in their working memory at any given time.

This oversimplification may not do it justice, but know that it takes much energy to shift attentions. In addition to the energy exerted to pull and push information, the brain must also reorient itself between shifts. This is often referred to as the attentional blink.

Train Your Brain

Reviewing the process and rebound rate, I can see the dangers of splitting attention among multiple tasks and devices. But have I ventured too far down the always-connected path to turn back? Not according to Rheingold – I just need to take a more active role in determining my attention. With our concerns surrounding time management, its surprising people take such a passive approach to attention. The reality is we just need to seize control – deciding for your brain what content is relevant and should be shifted into working memory.

Return to Focus

I turn now to Nass’s “Pomodoro Technique,” in which you “deliberately work on a single task for fifteen to thirty minutes before going with the multitasking flow for five or ten” (75). This method is supported by recent research that states “brief distractions from a focal task may improve concentration over the longer run” (46). I’ve felt this on long study nights and project days.

So I gave the Pomodoro Technique a test run yesterday and it was surprisingly difficult. I will partially blame this on the urgent requests that tend to populate my every day, but even in downtime I found my mind wandering to email or elsewhere.

Looking past work practices to human interaction, Stone also acknowledges how multitasking results in antisocial behavior. Rheingold uses the example of the hesitation in the voice of a person who is both on the phone and surfing the web (57). Isn’t this another sacrifice of quality for quantity? Suddenly, we’re back to etiquette. Like last week considering communication via screen or voice, we now need to determine when to provide undivided attention.

In this scenario, I cannot speak in absolutes – I won’t stop multitasking, but I won’t continue without thinking twice about it either. I believe Stone tackles it best stating:

 “the most wondrous mind to me… is the resilient, flexible mind that has a capacity to adopt any kind of attention strategy and a sensibility to determine which kind of attention matches the present situation” (58).

I’ll continue my experiment with the Pomodoro Technique to see how this impacts the quantity and quality of my writing. I’ll also be a bit more mindful when dividing my attention among coworkers/friends/family and my “To Do” list.


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