Continuous Partial Attention and the Multitasking "Crisis"

2008-06-18

Josh Waitzkin, the subject of one of my favorite movies (and there are precious few of those), is mightily worried that multitasking is a dangerous virus that has reached crisis proportions. (HT: Patri Friedman.)

Well. Longtime readers of this blog know that I am deeply skeptical of the crisis mentality. It's always easy to raise the specter of overwhelming trouble, impending doom, and mortal danger -- especially if you're hawking solutions or, especially, seeking power.

That said, I do think Waitzkin raises some valuable points: it's important to do what you love, let go of your fear of failure, cultivate positive habits, and become adept at truly focusing on the task at hand. But in my experience that doesn't necessarily imply that it's never good to multitask or engage in continuous partial attention. Different jobs, or even different aspects of the same job, have different modes of action. For example, because I am a personal hub in a large developer network, much of my job consists of opening myself to communication -- usually real-time communication -- with the 1900+ people in my contact list. Yet because I also write extremely detailed protocol specifications, there are times when I need to log out of my IM client, tune out the email, ignore the RSS feeds, and focus deeply for hours or even days at a time on defining and documenting how these real-time communication technologies are supposed to work.

So I don't think it's a matter of insisting that multitasking is bad whereas deep focus is good. Instead, it's a matter of doing the right thing in the right way at the right time, so that you learn to be most productive in the appropriate context. Yes that sounds awfully Aristotelian, and it's not an easy balance to achieve, but as Spinoza observed: "All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare." Whether today's schools and colleges are teaching young people to value or pursue that kind of balance, or whether it can be learned at all except through hard-won experience, is another question...


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