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Swaine’s World

Multitasking Considered Harmful

by Michael Swaine

Generic image illustrating the article
  Does multitasking battle with our ability to turn repetitive tasks into habits?  

The term “thoughtworker” is an oxymoron. Thought and work are incompatible activities. The mission of the thinking part of your brain should be to avoid at all costs anything that looks like work.

Let me rephrase that in more impressive language so that it doesn’t sound so much like some kind of slacker manifesto.

The more mental work your forebrain can offload to your hindbrain, the smarter you get. Your higher brain structures are optimized for higher mental processes, like daydreaming and making up limericks. The lower structures are optimized for drudgery, and they need to keep that stuff down in the mental cellar and not bother your consciousness with it.

Centipedal Motion

The Centipede’s Dilemma is a classic cautionary tale of the danger of over thinking. I first encountered it ages ago in Alan Watts’s The Way of Zen, but it really dates back to 1871 and a poem by a certain Mrs. Edmund Craster:

“The centipede was happy, quite, until the toad in fun said, ‘Pray, which leg goes after which?’ and worked her mind to such a pitch, she lay distracted in the ditch, considering how to run.”

It’s very zen. It’s also almost a limerick.

Anyway, the moral of the story is straightforward: Even for the merely two-legged, walking is a skill best relegated to the unconscious mind. If you think about every step before you take it, you won’t be able to think about anything else—and you won’t walk very well, either. There was a time when you had to think about every step, back when you were learning to walk. But learning to walk is a very different activity from walking, and involves different parts of the brain. Learning any skilled activity is very different from performing that activity once you have learned it. You, having learned this particular skill quite thoroughly many years ago, can now walk effortlessly and unconsciously while letting your conscious mind focus on other, more cerebral things, like making up limericks.

We get steadily better at the totality of our mental activity by continually turning conscious thought processes (like learning to walk) into unconscious habits and reflexes (like walking). Many kinds of activities can be at least partly routinized like this: dancing, swimming, riding a bicycle, typing, playing an instrument, proofreading, debugging, saving the file before you get up from your desk.

Muscle Memory vs. Multitasking

What I’m calling work is anything that can be routinized: repetitive tasks, familiar decisions, and the like. All of that activity can be sent to the basement, and should be. Down there, muscle memory gets a chance to take over and get work done while our conscious minds deal with other things.

Or at least it does when our environment allows it to. Consistency in user interface gestures, keystrokes, and layout is a powerful enabler of this when we’re using our computers. When similar user-interface buttons appear consistently in the same locations, we can transfer the use of these buttons to muscle memory.

Get a bunch of repetitive activities running in your mental basement and you’ve got a productive engine room. Free your mind to focus on a single activity and you can achieve flow.

Flow, being in the zone, whatever you call it, should be your mind’s goal. When you’re in that state, you’re totally focused and performing at your peak. Like Pete Townshend’s Pinball Wizard you “ain’t got no distractions, can’t hear those buzzers and bells.” You become one with the game.

So it’s not just daydreaming and limerick writing. It’s gaming. And that means it’s coding, too, because coding, when you’re in the zone, can absolutely be like playing a video game.

Multitasking is the opposite of all that. Multitasking is perpetual paradigm-breaking. It’s mental work, and it wants to monopolize your higher mental machinery, taking your mind away from the daydreaming your mind wants to do.

Penn & Teller

I recently saw Penn & Teller on stage and one routine by Penn Jillette seems relevant. The routine involves a high-power nail gun loaded with a magazine of nails and blanks in a seemingly random sequence. He claims to have memorized the sequence and demonstrates how confident he is in his ability to recall the sequence: he pumps the gun in rapid fire, either driving nails into a board or shooting blanks against his body.

It’s very dramatic, especially when he pretends to get distracted by trying to do the trick while talking nonstop to the audience. He pauses, seeming uncertain. Did he just fire two successive nails into the board, or three? He decides it must have been three, and puts the gun to his neck and pulls the trigger. Very dramatic.

The interesting thing is, it should be possible to do exactly what he’s claiming to do, if the pattern has been memorized so well it can be relegated to your mental basement. Then you could follow the pattern flawlessly while chatting with the audience.

By multitasking I don’t mean performing a memorized patterned activity while carrying on a conversation. Or walking and chewing gum at the same time—or even walking while writing limericks. I mean trying to do multiple higher-level activities at the same time. Try to do that and you’ll soon feel like your brain is on dial-up.

Which is why you should time-box everything that interrupts you. All your communication activities: checking email and tweets, taking calls, permitting face-to-face or face-to-back-of-head interruptions. Consider turning them into face-to-hand encounters.

But we all know we have to manage those interruptions somehow. What’s intriguing is thinking about how to organize your environment so that it helps rather than hinders such efforts.

In an article titled “Habit Fields,” Jack Cheng, founder of “the largest community-edited tea database on the Web,” makes the case that our desks and chairs and all the furniture and tools that we surround ourselves with store our memories, and more than that, our behavior patterns. He suggests that it can be useful to think of these artifacts as emitting habit fields that constrain and enable our patterns of habituated behavior. Which is not always a good thing:

“Thanks to the computer’s ability to multitask, sometimes these habit fields actually become oriented around the act of switching programs! If you’re conditioned to alternate between different modes of working every few seconds, it’s no wonder you have a tough time staying focused on one thing.”

A Physical Time Box

Which suggests what could turn out to be one of the great benefits of the iPad.

I’m starting to hear and read anecdotes from developers who say they are using their iPads for their email and general web browsing—exactly the kind of activities you want to timebox away from your coding. And I’m pretty sure that these developers aren’t developing software on their iPads. Now push that idea a little further. What if you never checked your email or Twitter on your computer? What if you restricted all that distracting activity to a completely separate device—your iPad? What if your computer became the place you went to totally immerse yourself in your coding?

I know you probably intend for it to work that way, but you know it doesn’t. Your computer has become more a source of distraction than your phone or family. What if you could kick all those distractions off your computer completely, exiling them to your iPad? Wouldn’t you spend a lot more time in the zone? And wouldn’t that be a good thing?

Michael Swaine is the editor of PragPub.

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