“Just One Thing at a Time” – More on the Myth of Multitasking (reflecting on Cathy Davidson, Now You See It)
Cathy Davidson loves, loves, loves everything digital. “She likes anything that departs from the customary way of doing things, especially the customary way of educating children.” Her new book is Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. She leads an interdisciplinary program at Duke.
But Annie Murphy Paul pretty much rejects everything about her view and approach in her Slate.com article: Who’s Afraid of Digital Natives? – Let’s not get intimidated by kids and their Internet savvy. She especially rejects Davidson’s fascination with the idea that the digital age is teaching us how to multitask. Here are brief excerpts from the article:
Her position ignores the inflexible and near-universal limits on our working memory, which allow us to hold only a few items of information in our consciousness at a time, or the work of researchers like Clifford Nass of Stanford University. “Human cognition is ill-suited both for attending to multiple input streams and for simultaneously performing multiple tasks,” Nass has written. In other words, people are inherently lousy at multitasking. Contrary to the notion that those who’ve grown up multitasking a lot have learned to do it well, Nass’s research has found that heavy multitaskers are actually less effective at filtering out irrelevant information and at shifting their attention among tasks than others.
…focusing one’s attention, gathering and synthesizing evidence, and constructing a coherent argument are skills as necessary as they were before—in fact, more necessary than ever, given the swamp of baseless assertion and outright falsehood that is much of the Web. Some day not too far in the future, the digital natives may find themselves turning down the music, shutting off the flickering screen, silencing the buzzing phone and sitting down to do just one thing at a time.
You should get in the alone zone. Long stretches of alone time are when you’re most productive. When you don’t have to mind-shift between various tasks, you get a boatload done.
During alone time, give up instant messages, phone calls, e-mail, and meetings. Just shut up and get to work. You’ll be surprised how much more you get done.
Here’s what I know. When I close my e-mail program, close Safari, put on just the right kind of soft/truly quiet background music, open a book, and dig in, with no interruptions, I seem to “get” the book better.
Here’s what I have come to think – at least about myself. I really can’t do two things at once. I just can’t.
“Inspiration is Perishable” – And a Few Other Valuable & Useful Lessons from Rework by Fried and Hansson
I just presented my synopsis of Rework for some folks at Gaylord. Terrific group – wonderful session. It’s been a while since I’ve looked at this book.
Here are some takeaways:
• Some over-all observations from the book:
1) This book is a blinding flash of the obvious (that’s what many good books are!)
2) Results really, really matter – almost nothing else does.
3) Be happy with good enough – but remember, good enough is never shoddy.
4) Revenue in has to surpass expenses out. This is the first law of business. Otherwise, you don’t have a business – you have a hobby.
5) Do what you need; make sure your product pleases you, meets your needs… Then your customers will get what they need.
And, I concluded my synopsis with these:
• Six things you can do to respond to the counsel in this book:
1) Spend only what you have to – be frugal.
2) Focus on results – and nothing else.
3) When you have a moment of inspiration, go with it. Don’t let up. — “Inspiration is perishable.”
4) Single task – spend long stretches of time alone to make something happen.
5) Take (better) care of yourself. — “Forgoing sleep is a bad idea.”
6) But, when you work, work hard – with focus – until you get something done.
• And remember – you are a manager of one. “You come up with your own goals, and you execute.” (Look for others who are successful at being a manager of one; hire only those, and, only when you have to).
You can purchase my synopsis of Rework, with audio + handout, from our companion web site at 15minutebusinessbooks.com.
How and why “Free Radicals” create wealth for themselves and meanwhile improve the world
Initially, I was somewhat put off by this book’s title but it certainly caught my attention and thus served its purpose in that respect. However, I wonder, how many people will let it go at that rather than read and then consider what Any Kessler has to say about various “unapologetic rules for game-changing entrepreneurs”? As my rating indicates, I think he has much of value to say…and says it well.
With regard to the meaning and significance of the book’s title, here is what Kessler observes: “the best way to leverage Abundance and Scale and to create Productivity is to get rid of people…Now I’m not suggesting we actually eat anyone…But we do need to get rid of worthless jobs [and those who languish in then]…There’s nothing productive about [many different kinds of jobs], though they may be temporarily necessary until someone, a true Free Radical, writes a piece of code to make them obsolete. That’s how you create productivity…If you look at the world through a productivity filter, a lot more things start to make sense, especially about who is pulling their load and who is just along for the ride.”
As Kessler goes on to explain, a “Free Radical” is a change agent who is determined to eliminate anyone and anything that reduces (if not eliminates) value, however defined. Especially during the current Depression/Depression/Great Reset/Whatever, it makes no sense to leave in place barriers (human and non-human) to productivity and efficiency, that are both scalable and sustainable.
How to decide what to do and not do? Kessler offers a baker’s dozen of “Rules” (the last is a bonus) and devotes a separate chapter to each. He explains why and how all can be essential “game-changers” for Free Radicals such as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and Sam Walton. However different they may be in most other respects, all of them not only created wealth for themselves, but at the very same time, improved the world, made life better, and increased everyone else’s standard of living. As Kessler explains, “Free Radicals found situations to combust and destroy, but in the end, it was only to make room to build the new [and the improved] – disrupt the status quo, do more with less, advance society, drive progress rather than have progress drive them. A free Radical is someone who gets wealthy inventing the future by helping others live longer and better.” So, “eating people” is a metaphor for the process by which Free Radicals (Creators) and their allies (Servers) eliminate whoever and whatever opposes or impedes “increasing productivity, increasing society’s wealth, reinventing the way the world works and generating enough (altruistic?) profits to reinvest in their process to keep this reinvention going for decades on end. These are the real heroes in history.”
Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out the just published 10th Anniversary Edition of The Cluetrain Manifesto co-authored by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger ; also, Bill Jensen and Josh Klein’s Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules for Smart Results, and Rework, co-authored by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.
Here is an excerpt from an article written for Inc. magazine (December 1, 2010) in which Jason Fried explains why no is the most important word that an entrepreneur can learn. If you wish to read the complete article, please click here.
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Are you in the software business? I bet most of you would answer no. So let me put it another way: Do you have a website? If the answer is yes, you’re in the software business. A website is software. It has utility, and that utility is accessed via an interface on a computer or mobile device. That’s software.
Given that today most businesses — and plenty of individuals — have websites, far more of you are in the software business than you probably realize. You may make widgets or furniture or run a restaurant or provide a service, but you’re also responsible for software. Even if you outsource the development of your website, you’re ultimately responsible for its presentation. In that way, you’re little different from a restaurateur — you probably don’t grow or raise your own ingredients, but you serve them to your customers. The buck stops with you.
Being in the software business is a wonderful thing. It means you can create just about anything. A basic set of raw materials — a
server, some code, some graphics, some words — can be configured into a billion combinations with relative ease. That is unique and wonderful and should be celebrated.
However, it’s also a curse. Understanding why is the key to building great software — or a great website.
Let’s start by looking at a physical object — say, a standard 16-ounce water bottle. Think Evian, Poland Spring, Fiji, or something like that. You don’t have to be an expert in anything to know that those bottles are well designed. They are made of clear plastic, which means you can see the contents from far away; if they were opaque, you wouldn’t be able to tell what was inside. The water inside the bottle is heavier than the packaging; if the bottle were heavier, you wouldn’t be able to feel if it was empty or full without picking it up or pouring out its contents. The bottles are grippable, portable, and easy to use; if they were too tall or too fat or too slippery or too thin, you wouldn’t be able to just grab and go.
You don’t have to analyze the bottle like I just did to understand that it is well designed. You know it, because you can see the bottle, feel it, and use all of its features immediately. You can see where it starts and ends. It is not complicated. It is in balance with its purpose. Imagine a bottle without a spout or a bottle that was burning hot or a bottle that was as slippery as ice. Every reasonable person would know that wouldn’t work.
Contrast that with software. What are the criteria for evaluating software? Software doesn’t have mass. It doesn’t have shape. It doesn’t cast shadows. It has no edges. It has no size. You can’t pick it up. You can’t feel it. It doesn’t obey the laws of physics. It’s not really even there. Nothing is pushing back, saying, “That’s a bad idea; that won’t work; that’s going to burn someone or hurt someone or make someone drop it or…” Almost none of the tools we’ve developed to evaluate physical objects apply to software.This is why most software goes bad over time.
Software — websites included — usually starts out pretty good. The first version is pretty focused. Yes, there are horror stories of overstuffed websites or unwieldy software products being launched. But for the most part, the first version of something has the fewest features it ever will have.
As time goes on, customers send feedback, and the business evolves. Things get more complicated. More people, more opinions, more pressure to add stuff.
The software grows. Version 2.0 comes along. It does more than Version 1.0. More features, more options, more screens, more stuff. Or the website is redesigned with more pages, more words, more images, more departments, more tools. Nothing has gone wrong yet. In fact, Version Two is pretty good, too.
But over time, yet more stuff is added. Remember our water bottle? Imagine what would happen if more stuff was added to it. Pretty soon it wouldn’t be functional. The physics would push back. Not so with software. You can just add more pages! Or you can just add more features or more settings or more preferences and hide them behind yet another button or menu. It’s just one more button, right?
This is where it all begins to fall apart. Future versions are loaded with more and more stuff. Nothing pushes back; nothing says no. And eventually, the product or the site becomes unmanageable. It’s too big, too slow, too confusing, but it’s still all subjective. Unlike the water bottle, the software can just keep growing. Software can’t overflow. It has no edges, so it can never be too big.
Guess what? It can.
The only way to stop this perpetual growth of an object without physical borders is for you to create your own borders. Those borders are discipline, self-control, an editor’s eye for “enough.” The ultimate border is one simple word: no. Someone in charge has to say no more than yes.
If the laws of physics govern the physical world, the word no governs the virtual world. “No, that’s one feature too many.” “No, that’s just not worth it.” “No, no, no.”
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Jason Fried is co-founder of 37signals, a Chicago-based software firm, and co-author with David Heinemeier Hansson of the book Rework (2010).
So, what do we do when the wisdom sounds so right, so obvious – but may be wrong?
I am a big fan of Jason Fried. I have presented a synopsis of his book (co-authored with David Heinemeier Hansson), Rework. I have blogged about his ideas, quoting him, reflecting on his ideas a number of times. And I like his writing style, and think he is right.
Except… what if he is wrong?
Here are excerpts from his latest (special for CNN – read it here):
The modern office has become an interruption factory. You can’t get work done at work anymore.
When people walk into the office, they trade their work day in for a series of work moments. It’s like the front door is a “time Cuisinart” — shredding it all into little bits.
When you’re in the office you’re lucky to have 30 minutes to yourself. Usually you get in, there’s a meeting, then there’s a call, then someone calls you over to their desk, or your manager comes over to see what you’re doing. These interruptions chunk your day into smaller and smaller bits. Fifteen minutes here, 30 minutes there, another 15 minutes before lunch, then an afternoon meeting, etc. When are you supposed to get work done if you don’t have any time to work?
People — especially creative people — need long stretches of uninterrupted time to get things done. Fifteen minutes isn’t enough. Thirty minutes isn’t enough. Even an hour isn’t enough.
If I had read this a month ago, I would have said something like: “Amen! ~ Preach it, brother!,” or words to that effect. But, now, I’m not so sure. Because I have just read Where Good Ideas Come From by Steven Johnson. And that book is filled with story after story about the creative/innovative energy that is created by folks interacting constantly. It praises the conference table, and the design of buildings that are intended to enable/encourage constant, “accidental” and “on-purpose” interaction. “Interruption,” if you will.. Consider this quote from Johnson’s book:
The ground zero of innovation was not the microscope. It was the conference table… The most productive tool for generating good ideas remains a circle of humans at a table, talking shop.
So – who is right? Jason Fried or Steven Johnson?
Maybe both… but, maybe, if we follow Fried too closely, we might lose out. Having just finished Johnson’s book, I suspect that Fried’s counsel would have some anti-innovation unintended consequences. At least, that’s what I think this week.
So – what about all of those interruptions. Some of them are good, and feed the idea factory. Others? Well, maybe we just need to put up a sign that says “I’m in the alone zone – check with me later” an hour or two a day at work. (“Alone zone” is one of Fried’s phrases, by the way).
Do You want to Communicate Clearly? – Economize words! (“The Future Belongs to the Best Editors,” says Jason Fried)
My colleague Karl Krayer teaches eight principles in his sessions on writing skills. One principle is this: economize words. It is a valuable principle.
I recently took some Q&A. The last question was asked by a guy in the front row. He said “What’s your take on the true value of a university education?” I shared my general opinion (summary: great socially, but not realistic enough academically) and ended with a description of a course I’d like to see taught in college. In fact, I’d like to teach it.
It would be a writing course. Every assignment would be delivered in five versions: A three page version, a one page version, a three paragraph version, a one paragraph version, and a one sentence version.
I don’t care about the topic. I care about the editing. I care about the constant refinement and compression. I care about taking three pages and turning it one page. Then from one page into three paragraphs. Then from three paragraphs into one paragraph. And finally, from one paragraph into one perfectly distilled sentence.
Along the way you’d trade detail for brevity. Hopefully adding clarity at each point. This is important because I believe editing is an essential skill that is often overlooked and under appreciated. The future belongs to the best editors.
I do think this is right; good; useful.
On the other hand, the details matter too. “You’d trade detail for brevity,” said Fried. Yes, you would. So, study the writing of both Michael Lewis and Malcolm Gladwell. I think they both have learned how to provide great detail, with few words.
So – learn what Fried suggests, then work on getting detail back in, in few words. Economize words, even in your details.
And remember this from Frank Luntz. Provide the “perfectly distilled sentence.” Then the one-page executive summary. Then, for those who want more, in a click away, provide the three pages of details:
(A Luntz Lesson) The number one priority: information. More is better than less. Details are better than generalities. Comprehensive is better than simplistic. Long term is better than immediate… Summarize the material for those who want to read less, but provide the fine print for those who want to know more.
(from What Americans REALLY WANT…REALLY: The Truth about our Hopes, Dreams, and Fears)
As Tony Schwartz explains in The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working, the results of various research studies clearly indicate that peak performers require at least 8 hours of rest (including sleep) to renew their energy. On average, those who are employed full-time must commit at least eight hours a day to their work. According to Robert Pagliarini, the other time while awake each day (about eight hours, hence the title of his book) will “determine your happiness and net worth.” He appreciates the need for energy renewal. He respects employment obligations that must be met. He also seems to have little (if any) patience for those who waste whatever discretionary time they have each day.
Yes, people also need to renew energy on Saturdays and Sundays and although they may not log time at the office or complete job-related tasks at home, they seldom (if ever) have all of Saturday and Sunday to do whatever they wish. I urge those who read this review and, hopefully, the book not to get hung up on specific numbers of hours. Many single parents tell me they have less discretionary time weekends than they do weekdays. Time and energy allocations vary from one person to the next, and for each person, one day to the next. Pagliarini’s objective, stated bluntly, is to help as many people as possible to “escape from the Living Dead and the Dead Broke.”
He divides his material into four sections. First, he introduces a framework and a mindset (Chapters One and Two); next (in Chapters Three and Four), he explains how to adjust allocation decisions so that more time can be devoted to what is most important in terms of achieving personal goals, whatever they my be; then in Chapters Five through Eight, he offers his own version of financial advice, comprised of “some new, unconventional strategies” for those whose who have not been well-served by “traditional” financial advice; finally, in Chapters Nine through Eleven, Pagliarini provides what he characterizes as a “blueprint” for “how to get a life,” based on his own experiences as well as those of countless others he has encountered. Although “the other 8 hours” are important, perhaps even essential to personal happiness and financial security, the number itself is far less important than the mindset one has with regard to discretionary time, and, the determination (indeed tenacity) one has to make the best use of that time.
If you are among those in need of help with becoming a “lean” thinker re setting and then defending priorities, I highly recommend the aforementiobed The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working and Rework co-authored by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson as well as David Allen’s Getting Things Done, Guy Kawwsaki’s Reality Check and Antul Geande’s The Checklist Manifesto.
Here is an excerpt from an article written by Steve Tobak for BNET, The CBS Interactive Business Network. To
read the complete article and/or obtain a free subscription to one or more of the BNET newsletters, please click here.
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From the time we’re young, just beginning to understand what’s going on around us, until we’re too old to care anymore, one question comes up again and again. Should we play by the rules?
Now, I’m sure most of you are pretty opinionated. But before you answer yes, no, or it depends, consider this. You probably play by more rules than you think … or should. Some of them are even rules you impose on yourself, and for reasons you may not be aware of. Those are the ones that tend to be the most career and success-limiting.
You see, rules fall into three general categories: legal, societal, and self-imposed.
Legal rules are pretty black and white. America’s a nation of laws, and the rule is don’t break them. Just to be clear, we’re talking criminal and civil laws. That trips up a lot of people who mistakenly think fraud, discrimination, domestic violence, harassment, even downloading copyrighted material or rolling through a stop sign, are ethical or moral issues. They’re not.
Societal rules involve complex issues like ethics and morality, so they’re far more subjective than legal rules. Even if you feel strongly about one thing or another, there are likely circumstances that would change your opinion.
For example, I generally don’t fault people who cheat on their spouses, but I might feel very differently when the person being cheated on is someone close to me. Similarly, while I think people should treat others with respect, I know I fall short of that ideal all too often.
So, you can see how societal rules are subject to perspective and circumstance. These are rules that from time to time we may break, feel badly about, realize that we’re human, and ultimately forgive ourselves — even while those we harmed may not.
Now, let’s talk about self-imposed rules. They’re the kind of rules you hear again and again in every workplace. I hear them in many of your comments and emails, as well:
“I won’t compromise my principles to climb the corporate ladder.”
“I don’t play politics at work.”
“That’s outside my comfort zone.”
“Life is too short to work with a**holes.”
“I won’t work for a boss who, at a job where, or at a company that ___________ (fill in the blank).”
Now, we’ve all uttered a phrase or two like that at one time or another, right? Well, let me introduce you to a concept called self-limiting behavior. In this context, it’s when we put restrictions on ourselves that have unintended consequences because we’re not aware of the real reasons behind them.
* * *
Hacking Work: Breaking Stupid Rules for Smart Results
Bill Jensen and Josh Klein
Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths and Total Nonsense: Profiting From Evidence-Based Management
Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert I. Sutton
Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Management? It’s Not What You Think!
Henry Mintzberg, Bruce Ahlstrand, and Joseph Lampel
Steve Tobak is a consultant, writer, and former senior executive with more than 20 years of experience in the technology industry. He’s the managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a Silicon Valley-based firm that provides strategic consulting, executive coaching, and speaking services to CEOs and management teams of small-to-mid-sized companies. Find out more by clicking here.
As I have observed many times, there are themes that crop in multiple books. And when this happens, I think they hint at true truth. That is, the kind of truth that is genuinely important, something to pay a lot of attention to.
Here’s one that was reemphasized again this morning. My colleague Karl Krayer presented his synopsis of The Way We’re Working isn’t Working, the new book by Tony Schwartz. And the book, with lots of really useful counsel, says this about our multitasking world:
The most surprising drawback of multitasking is the growing evidence that it isn’t even efficient… Once we’re distracted by something new, we often forget about the original task… The ultimate consequence of juggling many tasks is not superficiality but rather overload.
There are so many books and articles that are making this point in one way or another. The point is this:
MULTITASKING DOES NOT WORK!
Singletasking is the need of the hour, not multitasking.
Here are some other quotes to reinforce this now seemingly everywhere-present theme:
From ReWork by Jason Fried & David Heinemeier Hansson:
Instead, you should get in the alone zone. Long stretches of alone time are when you’re most productive. When you don’t have to mind-shift between various tasks, you get a boatload done.
During alone time, give up instant messages, phone calls, e-mail, and meetings. Just shut up and get to work. You’ll be surprised how much more you get done.
From The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp:
The irony of multitasking is that it’s exhausting; when you’re doing two or three things simultaneously, you use more energy than the sum of energy required to do each task independently. You’re also cheating yourself because you’re not doing anything excellently. You’re compromising your virtuosity. In the worlds of T. S. Eliot, you’re “distracted from distractions by distractions.”
From Superfreakonomics by Levitt and Dubner:
A person using a computer experiences “cognitive drift” if more than one second elapses between clicking the mouse and seeing new data on the screen. If ten seconds pass, the person’s mind is somewhere else entirely.
I think the jury is in. Learn to singletask, really well. Work with depth and attention and focus on one-thing-at-a-time.
You can leave the multitasking to those who will be left behind by their lack of focus.