Multitasking has been stressing me, robbing me of my focus, my productivity, and my appreciation of the beauty of the exact moment I’m experiencing right now, and dammit, I want my brain back!
Once upon a time, I was assigned 21 projects in my first month on a job. Distinct projects, working with different groups of people on completely different tasks. I went from writing code 95% of the time to running from meeting to meeting.
At the same time, I installed IM at work and didn’t create a separate work account (I can see this clearly now, but at the time, I was just filling out my HR profile, I didn’t see the significance). The lines became blurry and I started to get pings around the clock from both work and friends. This is in part due to “crazy-round-world-syndrome”. My life is international, that’s okay, but it does make boundaries harder.
Perhaps it really began as early as 2000, when I got my first cell phone and lived with it glued to my ear? Getting an iphone in January of 2007 certainly made it worse because as a device my precious is meant to be petted, not simply used to accomplish other tasks more efficiently.
And what did I find? In fact, multitasking is killing me. All these constant chats, SMS, growl notifications, and email are releasing dopamine in my brain. The kind of trigger my ancestors might have gotten from a lion jumping out of the bushes. The rush to immediate action. It causes me to value new information above old information because, like a drug, new information (no matter how trivial) gives me a shot of dopamine. My fix of choice is a cocktail of tweetie, iphone, and IM. I know that because after reading about My Brain On Computers, I installed RescueTime to see what I was up to. The results seriously scared me. I was spending far too much time IMing. Even if some of the discussions were technical and useful, the volume was just not acceptable.
Simply knowing this has lead to change. I realized that working from home too much means I am starved for interaction with other developers. I try to get that on IM, but constant distraction is inherent to the medium. Instead, I’m working from client offices, joining a co-working group, and inviting people to get together to work on projects face-to-face. It is much more satisfying than IM, and doesn’t come with the chipmunk on crack scatter-brain side effects.
A month ago, I started doing some mindfulness meditation. It is all about noticing how things are right now. The only effort you extend is a certain curiosity about how things will unfold. The rest happens naturally in proportion to your willingness to see things as they really are.
At first, Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla cupcakes started tasting oh-so-good. Then I started noticing how much time I spend swapping between tasks. That my frustration tolerance is very low. In other words, if I get stuck, rather than trying to work out a solution, I simply switch to an easier task (like email or twitter). I was spending so much time task-swapping I wasn’t even noticing what was happening right now! I resolved to walk my dog without checking my iphone. It was wonderful.
As a programmer, I love that amazing feeling of being in-the-zone. When the work seems to flow out of me and time doesn’t even really exist anymore. I had that feeling less and less (or maybe I was just more aware of it because of all the mindfulness meditation?), and I wanted it back. I went through all my old email since OOCSS started taking off. My god, it was a lot of email. Three or four messages per day filled with interesting five-part questions of a deeply technical nature (like cross-browser sub pixel rounding errors).
So I started to say no to projects and speaking engagements, to try to make my life more sane and manageable.
Feeling less productive
- Did a significantly worse job filtering out the irrelevant information.
- Took longer than non-multitaskers to switch among tasks.
- Less efficient at juggling problems.
- Tended to search for new information rather than accept a reward for putting older, more valuable information to work.
- Process visual and auditory input less efficiently.
- Become reliant on more a more simplistic, and often inferior, thought process, and can thus fall prey to perceptual decoys.
Huh, so maybe this multitasking thing gives the illusion of productivity without achieving higher volume, let alone my real goal of time spent deliciously focused on the task at hand.
So what makes people lose focus?
Decision-making. Apparently, time spent making decisions tires your brain. Much like the muscles of a runner, you can only go so far before you become too tired to run any more. Apparently, even tiny decisions (do I delete or archive this email) can seriously impact your ability to make good choices. See the last bullet point above.
Perhaps there is a parallel between this and choosing 1000 times a day not to respond to growl notifications bouncing in your periphery. Each time you exert will-power, you make it harder to have the mental energy to effectively make analyze your options. I’m taking this to mean that I should shut down Tweetie, Adium, and Mail for several hours each day, rather than trying to resist each time a new message comes in. To avoid “ego depletion” so that I will have enough left to use on something that truly exercises my concentration muscles and teaches me to tolerate frustration, like coding.
How can you get focus back?
These papers suggest three things; a good nights sleep, positive emotions, and slowly building up stamina. In addition, another link I got from Zeldman talks about the importance of being curious and gentle with yourself. Saying, “hmm, I wonder if I’ll manage to focus today?” is apparently much more effective and productive than admonishing yourself with a lot of “musts”, “shoulds”, and other guilt-producing tools of grinding willpower. So, I’m curious to see if I can find ways to reduce the number and frequency of tiny decisions and displays of self control which happen throughout my day. I wonder if I can make it to meditation today? It will be interesting to see if I can limit communication time to specified periods.
Is it working yet? Is it? Well, I’ve been doing this stuff for a few weeks, and I do seem to be writing a lot more blog articles. As always, I’m a work in progress.
All of my references are listed on Delicious. Check them out. There is some really good stuff in these articles. I definitely recommend going directly to the research papers.