Tag: Multitasking

In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed

We live in a world of scarce understanding and abundant information. We complain that we never have any free time yet we seek distraction. If work can't distract us, we distract ourselves. We crave perpetual stimulation and motion. We're so busy that our free time comes in 20 second bursts, just long enough for us to read the gist and assume we understand. If we are to synthesize learning and understanding we need time to think.

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The modern storm of bits and stimulation, relents only when we sleep. (And then only if we remember to turn off the iPhone.) Lost in all of this is the art of stillness.

We live in a world with more information than ever and yet we understand less. We have come into the belief that the simple act of reading confers understanding. Worse, most of our reading is elementary reading, or skimming — a far cry from syntopical reading, which seems more fertile for the mind willing to do the work.

But that's just it. We don't want, or can't find the time, to do the work that's required to hold an opinion. It's much easier to simply read the opinions of another and let them think for us.

What's worse is that we get confused.

When someone else does the work we think we understand the problem better than we do. This is why Elon Musk asks questions of depth when hiring people. He wants to filter out the people who did the work from the people who took credit for the work. And so with thinking.

Deresiewicz concentrating

Understanding comes from focusing, chewing, and relentlessly ragging on a problem. It comes with false starts, dead ends, and frustration. Thinking requires time and space. It's slow. It means saying I don't know.

In short, thinking is everything the modern workplace is designed to eradicate.

We're expected to have an opinion about everything and yet our time to think is near zero. We hold more opinions than ever but have less understanding. We don't even understand ourselves. How could it be otherwise?

As Milan Kundera wrote in his 1996 novella Slowness, “When things happen too fast, nobody can be certain about anything, about anything at all, not even about himself.”

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In Praise of Slowness

Larry Dossey, an American physician, coined the term “time-sickness” in 1982 to describe the belief that “time is getting away, that there isn’t enough of it, and that you must pedal faster and faster to keep up.”

Carl Honore, wrote a book, In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, to explore why we're always in such a rush, what if anything is the cure for time-sickness, and whether it's desirable to slow down.

The book is not an all-out declaration of war against speed.

Speed has helped to remake our world in ways that are wonderful and liberating. Who wants to live without the Internet or jet travel? The problem is that our love of speed, our obsession with doing more and more in less and less time, has gone too far; it has turned into an addiction, a kind of idolatry. Even when speed starts to backfire, we invoke the go-faster gospel.

We've become fast and fat.

Overwork is a health hazard in other ways, too. It leaves less time and energy for exercise, and makes us more likely to drink too much alcohol or reach for convenience foods. It is no coincidence that the fastest nations are also often the fattest. Up to a third of Americans and a fifth of Britons are now clinically obese. … One reason we need stimulants is that many of us are not sleeping enough. With so much to do, and so little time to do it, the average American now gets ninety minutes less shut-eye per night than she did a century ago.

“Inevitably,” Honore writes, “a life of hurry can become superficial. When we rush, we skim the surface, and fail to make real connections with the world or other people.” Moreover we don't make connections with ideas. We don't synthesize. We don't test theories over time. We don't play with ideas.

When everyone goes fast, most advantages brought by speed get lost. The only choice we see is that we have to go faster. It's an arms race that I call the Red Queen Effect. David Foster Wallace summed this up perfectly when he said “Bees have to move very fast to stay still.”

The implications on thinking are fascinating. We are all fast-thinkers now.

We have forgotten how to look forward to things, and how to enjoy the moment when they arrive. Restaurants report that hurried diners increasingly pay the bill and order a taxi while eating dessert. Many fans leave sporting events early, no matter how close the score is, simply to steal a march on the traffic. Then there is the curse of multi-tasking. Doing two things at once seems so clever, so efficient, so modern. And yet what it often means is doing two things not very well. Like many people, I read the paper while watching TV— and find that I get less out of both.

In this media-drenched, data-rich, channel-surfing, computer-gaming age, we have lost the art of doing nothing, of shutting out the background noise and distractions, of slowing down and simply being alone with our thoughts. Boredom— the word itself hardly existed 150 years ago— is a modern invention. Remove all stimulation, and we fidget, panic and look for something, anything, to do to make use of the time. When did you last see someone just gazing out the window on a train? Everyone is too busy reading the paper, playing video games, listening to iPods, working on the laptop, yammering into mobile phones.

Instead of thinking deeply, or letting an idea simmer in the back of the mind, our instinct now is to reach for the nearest sound bite. In modern warfare, correspondents in the field and pundits in the studio spew out instant analyses of events as they occur. Often their insights turn out to be wrong. But that hardly matters nowadays: in the land of speed, the man with the instant response is king. With satellite feeds and twenty-four-hour news channels, the electronic media is dominated by what one French sociologist dubbed “le fast thinker”— a person who can, without skipping a beat, summon up a glib answer to any question.

In a way, we are all fast thinkers now. Our impatience is so implacable that, as actress-author Carrie Fisher quipped, even “instant gratification takes too long.” This partly explains the chronic frustration that bubbles just below the surface of modern life. Anyone or anything that steps in our way, that slows us down, that stops us from getting exactly what we want when we want it, becomes the enemy. So the smallest setback, the slightest delay, the merest whiff of slowness, can now provoke vein-popping fury in otherwise ordinary people.

Slow does not always mean slow.

Fast and Slow do more than just describe a rate of change. They are shorthand for ways of being, or philosophies of life. Fast is busy, controlling, aggressive, hurried, analytical, stressed, superficial, impatient, active, quantity-over-quality. Slow is the opposite: calm, careful, receptive, still, intuitive, unhurried, patient, reflective, quality-over-quantity. It is about making real and meaningful connections— with people, culture, work, food, everything. The paradox is that Slow does not always mean slow.

Speed is not always the best policy.

Evolution works on the principle of survival of the fittest, not the fastest. Remember who won the race between the tortoise and the hare. As we hurry through life, cramming more into every hour, we are stretching ourselves to the breaking point.

Fast eats time. One consequence of fast is that we make poor decision after poor decision. Those decisions don't go away never to be seen again. It's not like we make a bad decision and we're done with it. No, the consequences are much worse. Poor decisions eat time. They come back to haunt you. They create issue after issue. They feed into the perpetual motion machine of busyness. And in a culture where people wear busyness as a badge of honor bad decisions actually lead us to think that we're doing more.

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Still Curious? In Praise of Slowness introduces “the Slow movement to a wider audience, to explain what it stands for, how it is evolving, what obstacles it faces and why it has something to offer us all.”

Learning How to Think: The Skill No One Taught You

“I’ve spent my life trying to undo habits—especially habits of thinking. They narrow your interaction with the world. They’re the phrases that come easily to your mind, like: ‘I know what I think,’ or ‘I know what I like,’ or ‘I know what’s going to happen today.’ If you just replace ‘know’ with ‘don’t know,’ then you start to move into the unknown. And that’s where the interesting stuff happens.”  — Humans of New York

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I've read Solitude and Leadership, an essay by William Deresiewicz before. In fact, I even pointed out some of its leadership lessons. However, after a friend prompted a re-visit to the very same essay, I realized that I missed a key part.

How do you learn to think?

Let’s start with how you don’t learn to think. A study by a team of researchers at Stanford came out a couple of months ago. The investigators wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked? The answer, they discovered—and this is by no means what they expected—is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there. In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: the more people multitask, the worse they are, not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself.

One thing that made the study different from others is that the researchers didn’t test people’s cognitive functions while they were multitasking. They separated the subject group into high multitaskers and low multitaskers and used a different set of tests to measure the kinds of cognitive abilities involved in multitasking. They found that in every case the high multitaskers scored worse. They were worse at distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information and ignoring the latter. In other words, they were more distractible. They were worse at what you might call “mental filing”: keeping information in the right conceptual boxes and being able to retrieve it quickly. In other words, their minds were more disorganized. And they were even worse at the very thing that defines multitasking itself: switching between tasks.

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

I find for myself that my first thought is never my best thought. My first thought is always someone else’s; it’s always what I’ve already heard about the subject, always the conventional wisdom. It’s only by concentrating, sticking to the question, being patient, letting all the parts of my mind come into play, that I arrive at an original idea. By giving my brain a chance to make associations, draw connections, take me by surprise. And often even that idea doesn’t turn out to be very good. I need time to think about it, too, to make mistakes and recognize them, to make false starts and correct them, to outlast my impulses, to defeat my desire to declare the job done and move on to the next thing.

I used to have students who bragged to me about how fast they wrote their papers. I would tell them that the great German novelist Thomas Mann said that a writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people. The best writers write much more slowly than everyone else, and the better they are, the slower they write. James Joyce wrote Ulysses, the greatest novel of the 20th century, at the rate of about a hundred words a day—half the length of the selection I read you earlier from Heart of Darkness—for seven years. T. S. Eliot, one of the greatest poets our country has ever produced, wrote about 150 pages of poetry over the course of his entire 25-year career. That’s half a page a month. So it is with any other form of thought. You do your best thinking by slowing down and concentrating.

Deresiewicz concentrating and thinking

And there you have it. An argument to spend more time thinking.

Improve Your Life by Paying Attention

rapt

“Few things are as important to your quality of life as your choices about how to spend the precious resource of your free time,” writes Winifred Gallagher, author of the book Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life.

That your experience largely depends on the material objects and mental subjects that you choose to pay attention to or ignore is not an imaginative notion, but a physiological fact. When you focus on a stop sign or a sonnet, a waft of perfume or a stock-market tip, your brain registers that “target,” which enables it to affect your behavior. In contrast, the things that you don’t attend to in a sense don’t exist, at least for you.

All day long, you are selectively paying attention to something, and much more often than you may suspect, you can take charge of this process to good effect. Indeed, your ability to focus on this and suppress that is the key to controlling your experience and, ultimately, your well-being.

What is attention anyways?

Attention is commonly understood as “the concentration of the mental powers” or “the direction or application of the mind to any object of sense or thought. Recently, however, a rare convergence of insights from both neuroscience and psychology suggests a paradigm shift in how to think about this cranial laser and its role in behavior: thoughts, feelings, and actions. Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships.

If you could look backward at your years thus far, you’d see that your life has been fashioned from what you’ve paid attention to and what you haven’t. You’d observe that of the myriad sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings that you could have focused on, you selected a relative few, which became what you’ve confidently called “reality.” You’d also be struck by the fact that if you had paid attention to other things, your reality and your life would be very different.

If this sounds a lot like mindfulness, you're on the right track. And there is no one better to learn from than Sherlock Holmes.

So if attention is the key, what should you pay attention to? The positive.

… Barbara Fredrickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, shows that paying attention to positive emotions literally expands your world, while focusing on negative feelings shrinks it — a fact that has important implications for your daily experience.

You have the ability to control what you focus on …

As to the idea that the ability to focus on this rather than on that gives you control over your experience and well being, Kahneman says that both the Dalai Lama and the Penn positive psychologist Martin Seligman would agree about the importance of paying attention: “Being able to control it gives you a lot of power, because you know that you don’t have to focus on a negative emotion that comes up.”

At the end of a discussion of attention and decision-making, Kahneman remarks on research that suggests older people connect more with the experiencing self, which is inclined to pay rapt attention to little everyday delights, like sunbeams dancing on water or music drifting through a window.

Always look on the bight side.

As the abundance of vaguely annoying sayings such as “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade” proves, the idea of restoring emotional equilibrium by refocusing on a problem in a different way is not new. What is is the impressive research that increasingly shows that Pollyanna’s insistence on “looking at the bright side,” even in tough situations, is a powerful predictor of a longer, happier, healthier life.

If a snowstorm prevents a trip to the store for groceries, one person curses the weather and has a rotten day, while another quickly focuses on what a good thing it is to be snug inside and to have that nice leftover meatloaf. Research on the so-called cognitive appraisal of emotions, pioneered by the psychologists Magda Arnold and Richard Lazarus, confirms that what happens to you, from a blizzard to a pregnancy to a job transfer, is less important to your well-being than how you respond to it. Because your reaction to any event is at least partly a matter of interpretation, the aspects you concentrate on become what the UNC psychologist Barbara Fredrickson calls “leverage points” for a simple attentional-attitudinal adjustment that works as an emotional “reset button.” If you want to get over a bad feeling, she says, “focusing on something positive seems to be the quickest way to usher out the unwanted emotion.”

That’s not to say that when something upsetting happens, you immediately try to force yourself to “be happy.” First, says Fredrickson, you examine “the seed of emotion,” or how you honestly feel about what occurred. Then you direct your attention to some element of the situation that frames things in a more helpful light. After a big blowup over an equitable sharing of the housework, rather than continuing to concentrate on your partner’s selfishness and sloth, you might focus on the fact that at least a festering conflict has been aired, which is the first step toward a solution to the problem, and to your improved mood. Interestingly, people who are depressed and anhedonic—unable to feel pleasure—have particular trouble using this venerable attentional self-help tactic. This difficulty suggests to Fredrickson that they suffer from a dearth of happiness rather than a surfeit of sadness: “It’s as if the person’s positive emotional systems have been zapped or disabled.”

How you react to life is more important than what happens. Those are the words that legendary psychiatrist and Auschwitz-survivor, Viktor Frankl, so aptly found out the hard way. In Man's Search for Meaning, he wrote:

Everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstance, to choose one’s own way.

Oh, and one more thing. While we think that shopping makes us feel better, it doesn't.

Despite your initial excitement and a high price tag, adaptation guarantees that your focus will soon stray from the wondrous pleasures of your new computer or larger apartment, consigning them to mere comfort status. Rather than binging on such big, costly amenities, a better — and cheaper — strategy for boosting your daily satisfaction quotient would be to add many more simple, inexpensive ones … After all, on any given Monday morning, your comfortable bank balance pales beside a good cup of coffee.

Paying attention to what you pay attention to is a simple point. If you think multi-tasking is the answer: it isn't. Reading Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, is a quick reminder that what you focus on can literally change your world.

Technology and Intermittent Reinforcement

Recent digital technologies generate a perfect storm of anti-attention, largely because they draw on the tremendous power of what B. F. Skinner called ‘intermittent reinforcement.’ We click the ‘new mail’ button in our email clients or look once more at Twitter or revisit Facebook because we get something new and interesting only sometimes—and this, Skinner learned, is far more powerful an incentive to animals than regular and predictable reinforcement. After all, if we know that whenever we click the button we will have new mail, our curiosity is diminished: when we get to it, it’ll be there. It’s the not knowing that prompts my rebellious hand to inch toward the iPhone. As Sam Anderson has written, ‘The Internet is basically a Skinner box engineered to tap right into our deepest mechanisms of addiction.’ (Many metaphors for this situation may suggest themselves: I am also fond of Cory Doctorow’s comment that ‘the biggest impediment to concentration is your computer’s ecosystem of interruption technologies.’)

Many of us try to console ourselves in the midst of the blooming and buzzing by claiming the powers of multi-tasking. But a great deal of very thorough research into multitasking has been done in recent years, and it has produced some unequivocally clear results, chief among them being: no one actually multitasks, instead, we shift among different tasks and give attention to only one at any given time.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction

The Magic of Doing One Thing at a Time

do only one thing

Tony Schwartz, author of Be Excellent at Anything, remarks that the biggest cost to splitting our attention among various activities is to productivity.

He offers some advice on getting back on track: do the most important thing first in the morning; establish regular, scheduled times to think more long term, creatively, or strategically; and take real and regular vacations.

Why is it that between 25% and 50% of people report feeling overwhelmed or burned out at work?

It's not just the number of hours we're working, but also the fact that we spend too many continuous hours juggling too many things at the same time.

What we've lost, above all, are stopping points, finish lines and boundaries. Technology has blurred them beyond recognition. Wherever we go, our work follows us, on our digital devices, ever insistent and intrusive. It's like an itch we can't resist scratching, even though scratching invariably makes it worse.

The biggest cost — assuming you don't crash — is to your productivity. In part, that's a simple consequence of splitting your attention, so that you're partially engaged in multiple activities but rarely fully engaged in any one. In part, it's because when you switch away from a primary task to do something else, you're increasing the time it takes to finish that task by an average of 25 per cent.

But most insidiously, it's because if you're always doing something, you're relentlessly burning down your available reservoir of energy over the course of every day, so you have less available with every passing hour.

If you want to be even more productive, try sleeping.

Still curious? Schwartz is the co-author of a book a former boss recommended to me: The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal. Also check out how to boost the productivity of computer programmers and engineers and why open plan offices suck.

The Power of Concentration

Maria Konnikova, writes in the New York Times on what we can learn from Sherlock Holmes, the world's greatest fictional detective and the ultimate unitasker.

More often than not, when a new case is presented, Holmes does nothing more than sit back in his leather chair, close his eyes and put together his long-fingered hands in an attitude that begs silence. He may be the most inactive active detective out there. His approach to thought captures the very thing that cognitive psychologists mean when they say mindfulness.

And

These effects make sense: the core of mindfulness is the ability to pay attention. That’s exactly what Holmes does when he taps together the tips of his fingers, or exhales a fine cloud of smoke. He is centering his attention on a single element. And somehow, despite the seeming pause in activity, he emerges, time and time again, far ahead of his energetic colleagues. In the time it takes old detective Mac to traipse around all those country towns in search of a missing bicyclist in “The Valley of Fear,” Holmes solves the entire crime without leaving the room where the murder occurred. That’s the thing about mindfulness. It seems to slow you down, but it actually gives you the resources you need to speed up your thinking.

The difference between a Holmes and a Watson is, essentially, one of practice. Attention is finite, it’s true — but it is also trainable. Through modifying our practices of thought toward a more Holmes-like concentration, we can build up neural real estate that is better able to deal with the variegated demands of the endlessly multitasking, infinitely connected modern world. And even if we’ve never attempted mindfulness in the past, we might be surprised at how quickly the benefits become noticeable.

I'm reminded of Blaise Pascal's thought: “All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

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