Tag Archives: multitasking

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The Advantages of Linear Thinking

This is the realm of the problem-solver, the creator, the owner of a consciousness that will discover what a fragmented thinker may never find.

Sherlock Holmes

[With each passing year it seems like we collectively lose more of our hard-earned skills for concentration. Those are important skills that allow us to focus on a single task, seeing it through to successful completion. In short, we are distracted. Digital media are rewiring our brains to prefer ideas or subjects in short and simple segments: a serious loss to our coping and problem-solving abilities.]

By definition, a distraction is a detour. It happens when the continuity of some effort is broken by the need to shift attention elsewhere. Since this website is dedicated to communicating in “the age of distraction”—be it advertising clutter, too many texts and emails, or the frenetic pace of overscheduled lives—we should have an interest in persons who resist all the cultural noise.

One answer to this problem is to discipline ourselves to follow a more linear pathway, even though cultivating this kind of thinking cuts against the grain of the culture.   And it’s not easy to tell the world to take a hike while we muse alone in our own self-made bubble.

Linear thinkers take many forms:  avid readers content to devote large chunks of time to a single work of fiction or nonfiction, artists happily left alone to work through decisions that will end up on canvass or as musical notation.  And of course we’ve enshrined the image of the “mad scientist” as a loner following the threads of their research with long hours in the lab, leaving family and friends to fend on their own.

George Frederick Handel wrote the great oratorio Messiah in spurt of nearly unbroken concentration, finishing in just over three weeks.  And imagine the sustained effort required by William Lamb’s architectural firm, who designed and prepared drawings for New York City’s Empire State Building in an incredibly short two weeks. The iconic skyscraper was completed in just over a year.  Such dedication to a single task can be scaled down to what many writers sense when they notice the time that vanishes when they are absorbed in their work.

The linear thinker looks forward to clearing the decks sufficiently to be able to see an unobstructed view of the horizon. Undisturbed concentration gives them power. This is the realm of the problem-solver, the creator, the owner of a consciousness that will discover and understand what a fragmented thinker may never find. Unbroken attention to a task allows a first effort to build on the synergies that begin when scattered thinking  begins to see connections and consequences that others may miss.  By contrast, longer discursive forms allow important details and possible problems to come into focus.

This is more or less the reverse of the kind of segmentation of effort that is now embedded in our work and so much of our media. A reader’s time on a single web page is usually under a minute.  And we are getting cues from all over that we’re not noticing our preference for hyper-compression. Consider, for example, the New York Times reporter who recently noted in passing that an individual “argued” a point “on Twitter.”  Really?  Can a person “argue” in the traditional sense of the term—which includes asserting a claim and it’s good reasons—in a verbal closet of 280 characters?  Twitter imposes absurd limitations on the expression of  thoughts, matched by political ads that “argue” public policy in 30-seconds, television news “sound bites” from policy-makers that average around eight seconds, and the de-facto editing style of commercial television that cuts individual shots into lengths of two or three seconds.

Interestingly, one of the features  sometimes seen in a person at the higher end of the autism spectrum scale is a consuming and total passion for one thing. Subjects with Asperger’s are especially known for their laser-focused interests, making them a challenging fit in a culture that rewards frequent pivots to completely different activities. Psychological historians believe we can thank mild forms of autism for the achievements of Mozart, Beethoven, Charles Darwin, and Lewis Carroll.  It’s interesting to posit that it may well have been Aspergers that made Sherlock Holmes the world’s favorite sleuth.

Given the misplaced importance of multi-tasking across the culture, it makes sense that there is building interest in novel ideas like the self-driving car. Negotiating a ribbon of open road is a linear process that seems increasingly beyond the capacities of distracted drivers. It’s probably better to let a computer take care of a task many are less equipped to manage themselves.

If we think we have identified a significant problem here, we probably should be more humble and note that these few words on the attributes of linearity are a better example of non-linear thinking. The concept deserves a book more than a blog.

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The Mistake of Multitasking

There’s near unanimity in the literature on comprehension that critical thinking and accurate listening decline when we fragment our attention.

Fall’s quicker pace in the school and workplace offers the chance for a timely remember that some work habits are self-defeating.  In terms of attention to detail, perhaps nothing exacts a higher price than the belief that we can do several things at once.

As I’ve noted in this space before, the fundamental problem is that no one is good at multitasking.  We are simply not wired to fully deal with a variety of stimuli at once.  We may think otherwise. But how often do you hear someone else offering reminders that suggest our attention was elsewhere? “I told you that yesterday,” “You must have missed it,” or “You left some important things in that email” all serve as useful indicators.

In computer terms, we are better at serial processing than parallel processing. Technology writer Nicholas Carr explains why our brains cannot successfully process more than a few competing bits of information:

Why the Human Brain Can’t Multitask

Complete video at: http://fora.tv/conference/ideas_economy_information Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, explains why the human brain struggles to process information that is presented “with the intensity and the quantity and the speed we find ourselves surrounded by today.”

There’s near unanimity in the literature on comprehension that critical thinking and listening declines when we fragment our attention. To put it simply, multitasking makes us just a little bit stupid. As researcher Clifford Nass famously noted, multitaskers are “suckers for irrelevancy.”  Because “everything distracts them,” their intellectual performance on important tasks deteriorates.  Sometimes the person addicted to a digital stew of stimuli is the last to know that they have become functionally impaired.

It’s a common mistake to assume that being “busy” means being “fully engaged.”  We perform our busyness as a badge of honor.  But it’s closer to the truth to conclude that the more we structure lives to include distractions, the less we are able to get past this self-induced noise that complicates the completion of an important task.

Try a simple experiment.  Read your email or a series of text-messages while also listening to someone explain how to get to an address on the other side of town. No GPS device allowed. An active and full-time listener will probably process the directions correctly, or ask questions until they have the mental map they need.  The split-time listener is more likely to end up lost, often compounding their distraction by calling from from a moving car to get new directions.  Alas, that makes things even worse. Distracted driving is a form of multitasking that kills more pedestrians each year.

Look for models in those from all walks of life who still have the will to engage with one thing for an extended period.  These linear thinkers may be younger readers happily caught in the thrall of a writer or literary genre; newspaper consumers who will follow an investigative story across three pages of a broadsheet; or the curious who are in the thrall of a speaker or performer over a sustained period of time. To be sure, these individuals increasingly seem to be outliers. We now tend to notice an “unusual” passion for thirsty listening, ‘doing’ or reading.  These linear thinkers are now much more out of the norm, different from the rest of us swamped in a clutter of trivia.