Category Archives: Navel Gazing

Random Philosophizing and Overblown Self Examination

Multitasking is killing me (and probably you too)

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.

So what does a good geek do? Gather data.

I gathered data from scientific american, psychology today, read research papers, took a mindfullness course, and read links that friends posted to twitter.

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.

Mindfullness Meditation

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

Test your focus (flash) based on a Stanford Study

Test your focus based on a Stanford Study

Then, the guilt set in. I *should* be doing more, I shouldn’t say no to an awesome project or speaking engagement. I should clone myself so that I could keep up with my email. I am the middle child in my family. My sister is a type-A go getter. She always has a million things going on. She has to-do lists and lists of her to-do lists. I’ve always felt like that was the “right” way to be. So again, I did some research. Multitaskers:

  • 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.

The two devils — how the right will beat Obama

without ever supporting McCain.

“There is no difference between the two devils, except family values.”

We were talking about politics over lunch. After some prodding I was able to understand that he meant that Obama and McCain were equally bad. By family values, he meant that the definition of marriage would change to include homosexual couples. In his mind, all the issues are more or less equal, both candidates are instruments of the devil, but at least McCain won’t let homosexuals get married.

I had wondered how the right wing would make people vote for McCain given his history of centrism. I’d be surprised if he even really cared about gay marriage one way or the other, but he is pandering hard, and this is his audience.

I want to take back family values. We’re not in some kind of Huxley nightmare-utopia. FAMILY VALUES means something real; you can’t distort words and use double-speak to convince Christians to make choices that don’t make any sense.

“…at the dawn of the 21st century we also have a collective responsibility to recommit ourselves to the dream; to strengthen that safety net, put the rungs back on that ladder to the middle-class, and give every family the chance that so many of our parents and grandparents had. This responsibility is one that’s been missing from Washington for far too long — a responsibility I intend to take very seriously as President.”

— Barack Obama, Spartanburg, SC, June 15, 2007

To my colleague. if you read nothing else, I hope you’ll read Obama’s plans for strengthening families. The value he places on the family shines through in each of the plans he has carefully crafted, and in the way he respects people and the work they do, even if they will never be rich or famous.

As I understand it, Jesus put you here to be human and lead by example. Living in a Christian way, with loving kindness and caring, even for people who are different than you. It seems to me that things have gotten mixed up. You are trying to be god, to judge other people, or say who is a family and who isn’t. That seems far too complicated for a human to get right, maybe it would just be best to stick to the original mission and avoid the scope creep?

I think you’ll find that the democratic candidate is a better match for Christian ideals than the Republican. Did you ever ask yourself why your church wants you to believe both men are devils? That kind of polarizing view plays into the hands of people who care more about power than they do about families.

Education and Childcare – early education programs, better preschools and schools, and improved financial access to higher education. Incentives (like better salaries) to keep good teachers teaching. Students shouldn’t need to graduate with massive debts, this is no way to start off in life, and sends the wrong message to students about making good financial choices.

“I don’t want to send another generation of American children to failing schools. I don’t want that future for my daughters. I don’t want that future for your sons. I do not want that future for America.”

— Barack Obama, Jefferson-Jackson Dinner, Des Moines, Iowa, November 10, 2007

Health Care – Affordable healthcare FOR EVERYONE. No more worries like what if you get sick, or change jobs, or get laid off, or your kids need care. You will simply be covered. And your neighbor’s family will be covered too, even if they empty the waste bins rather than the cache at a high tech company. I value families; it gives me peace of mind to think that my neighbor’s family will be OK, even if someone gets sick.

“In the richest nation on Earth, it is simply not right that the skyrocketing profits of the drug and insurance industries are paid for by the skyrocketing premiums that come from the pockets of the American people.

This is not who we are. And this is not who we have to be. “

— Barack Obama, University of Iowa, May 29, 2007

Family Balance – Work-life balance should be easier to accomplish. We have serious problems in terms of how employees are treated and respected. Personally, I wish that reasonable vacations were on the list of things to improve. India and England have 5 weeks vacation per year, why do we have only two? Why is working hard considered in opposition to spending time with your family, traveling, and pursuing other interests? With more reasonable leave, we would all be more productive. Obama hasn’t to my knowledge addressed this issue, but he has talked about a lot of other work-life balance issues.

Immigrant meta-culture

The capellini and eggplant at the Sheraton was nothing special, but the bartender made me a martini French style with sweet vermouth. The drink reminded me, the way it always does, of aperitif in my tiny apartment on the border of Chinatown in the 13th arrondissement in Paris. The bar on the hotel patio had been rented out to the hair group for their company party. Unseasonably cold weather drove the party inside where loud, very plastic women flirted with wannabe-actors. Being in L.A. really is different than anywhere else I’ve ever been.

The quiet guy next to me at the bar glanced over a couple of times. He looked more like me, a business traveler getting his dinner, his laptop on the bar. The place got more and more crowded and somehow we began to speak. I suppose he started it. By the time our dinner arrived, he moved to the seat next to mine so we wouldn’t have to shout.

I probably should have been playing the tourist at the third street promenade, but I was still holding out hope that I would finish writing an article on background images for a series that Opera is putting together. More on that later. Anyway, this could be some clichéd story, but actually he and I had a really interesting conversation about a new culture that is arising out of essentially fitting nowhere.

Anyone that has lived abroad for more than a few years, understands fundamentally not fitting. When I moved to Paris, I expected it to be a culture shock, to really change my ideas. It’s natural, I had to learn the language, and more than that, figure out how to make my way in a culture with vastly different values and customs than my own. To my surprise then, the biggest not-fitting had nothing to do with my adopted culture, but rather the first time I returned home after truly becoming French somewhere deep in my core. It’s only then that you realize your instincts are off, you find odd those who share the culture you once considered as natural as water to a fish.

Dario confirmed that ultimately, when you’ve truly adopted another culture, you can never feel ordinary again. I will be an etranger for the rest of my life. I only feel French when I’m in the States, and I only feel American in Paris. I can only imagine what California is doing to my brain as we speak. In fact, just last night I casually told a group of people about buying a treadmill for my dog, without once thinking that this was a little eccentric.

I wrote about The Namesake, an excellent book about Indians moving to Cambridge for graduate school. When I read it, I wasn’t thinking about the cultural differences of the Indian family, I was empathizing with a situation that so closely resembled my own. These same stories echo in people from around the world. I know an Indian married to a Jewish American woman, living in Boston. I’m an American who married a Frenchman and we’ve lived in Boston, France, and the Silicon Valley. I work with a Bulgarian who has lived in Canada and California. I went to school with Algerians living in the banlieue. I have friends here who have American children though both parents are foreign (what does a word like foreign or international even mean anymore?). I sang with Brits living in Nairobi. And, on this night, I talked to a Spanish man living in New York.

These people, pioneers really, are comfortable everywhere, even as they fit perfectly nowhere. They’ll never have the luxury of believing that their home is perfect or being so firm in their ideas that they don’t even notice them. No matter where they settle, they’ll miss something, or someone, from everywhere they’ve ever lived. And each knows, that they can never truly go home again. In each place, they’ll only feel all the more strongly the parts of them that are drawn to another home. They’ll mix up languages and use words that don’t belong. For me it is dégradé, I simply cannot remember the word in English, at least not while speaking.

Similarly, I’ve come to believe everyone should have access to healthcare, an idea that is only beginning to be considered other than shockingly left wing, in my own country. For an Indian friend, the press of people in Bombay feels slightly overwhelming. Or a Frenchwoman, with her stroller stuck in the sand in Cannes, prefers American friendliness to French politesse. You might think that fitting nowhere is a lonely place to be, and you’d be right, it can be. But I’ve discovered that these multicultural people fit well with each other. No matter where they’ve come from, or moved to, it seems that the archetype of the immigrant is strong enough to bond them in a common un-culture. I enjoy the sense of humor that comes with personal understanding of just how transitory strongly held beliefs can be when you begin to look at them from the eyes of the other. When you begin to be other.