What Was I Doing Again?

I’m glad I finished my schooling back in the dark ages, when nearly everyone carried a notebook and wrote longhand notes.

Sure, we had computers, but they weren’t terribly common. Plus, the World Wide Web (or “Internet”) was in its infancy and not available everywhere.

Math on tape is hard to follow so: Please listen carefully.

I wonder how educators and students survive today with all the distractions present. I see pictures of classrooms full of laptops and wonder how many people are actually paying attention.

As an aside, these shots remind me of the updated version of a scene in Real Genius, where, as time passes, all the students and eventually the lecturer, are replaced by tape recorders. Even though the bodies are present, are the students really there?

We all have too many points of contact, which make it all to easy to be interrupted when we should/want to be concentrating.

Research says the brain needs to concentrate and focus on analytic tasks. Successful multi-tasking is a myth, unless of course, your job is to communicate in bursts and doesn’t require deep thinking for extended periods of time.

The irony is that if you disappear to limit the distractions, people wonder where you are and if you’re working. Modern life dictates multi-tasking, which, in turn, degrades the quality of our work and our interactions.

When I first started using a feed reader years ago, I started out reading as much as possible. Then, I slid into skimming posts, then to skimming the first paragraph, and now, I rarely read an entire post, usually skimming headlines to see if I’m interested.

If I’m interested, I set aside a list of stuff to read when I get time, which isn’t ideal, but this is the only way I can get throw all the content I feel compelled to follow. Don’t get me started on the pile of books I plan to read, some day.

A bit funny considering I continue to write long blogs posts asking for comments. I’m flattered that some of you actually read some of the post, at least enough to leave intelligent comments.

As someone who remembers what it’s like to concentrate on tasks, I wonder how kids manage to do this today. How can you study for an exam when you’re IM’ing, texting and keeping up with all your friends online? I can’t even concentrate with music playing, unless it has no words.

Does this mean that I’m less evolved for modern living? Maybe I’m a dinosaur.

Not surprisingly, this post is a victim of multi-tasking. I started it in April 2008, and today, when I decided to resurrect it, I got side-tracked by IM, email and a conversation over Skype.

How do you handle the rigors of multi-tasking? Do you think young people have cracked that nut?

If you made it this far, leave a comment. Otherwise, feel free to move on to the next thing in your day.




  1. Surely you mean you see Starbucks full of students with laptops and wonder how they concentrate. Take a trip up to the 24 HR Starbucks in Laurel Village in SF some night at about 11 pm -scary.

  2. I feel sorry for “normal” people. I also disagree with the premise that multi-tasking is a fallacy. That assumes everyone learns the same. For the majority of people that may be true but there is a subset of the population who's brains don't work exactly like everyone else.

    For most of my life I've been told I have a disability. Now in our always on society I believe it's everyone else who has the disability. You see I'm ADD. Not the sleep deprived, hyper distracted, over caffeinated state that popular culture refers to when they all half-jokingly talk about ADD. But the real, ADD where I take prescription meth to calm down and I take caffeine to “take the edge off” not wake up.

    But for the rest of you I do believe there's hope. Like building muscles I think multi-tasking can be learned. Not that it should be used for learning but in many work environments I think it can be a successful mental state.

    There's a great article in NY Mag you should read http://nymag.com/news/features/56793/.

    My personal view is much like the French philosopher Michel Foucault points towards in Madness and Civilization, each forward jump in progress leaves behind a subset of the population. I have to wonder if the next leap forward will leave behind those who can't multi-task.

  3. Glad to hear you're able to overcome your ADD. I generally stay away from characterizing easy distraction as ADD, since as you say, it's a real disorder with real symptoms and not just the inability or lack of desire to control distractions.

    I think I've mentioned before that I control areas of the day (mornings) when I need to concentrate on deep thinking tasks. I shut off and avoid the distractions during these times b/c I need the quiet time. I know how I work best, and I don't want to train myself to work in new ways this late in my life.

    I don't necessarily agree that losing the ability to perform undistracted thinking is a leap forward though. I have learned to multi-task, but can a person (not with ADD mind you) learn how to think quietly without distraction? I'm not sure, but I'll bet there will be plenty of research espousing both sides of that argument in the coming decade.

    Appreciate the comment, good stuff.

  4. real genius, one of the best movies ever. i always wanted to be like them.

    loved it when the guy in the closet decided to get a life and entered (sort of hacked) some frito lay contest and won all the prizes. i've thought about trying that exact stunt over the years…

    BTW, are you saying I email you too much? 🙂

    i can chew gum and walk at the same time, but not much else. i think the idea of multi-tasking is a myth…you can't actually do it. we're not threaded…maybe ADD is threaded? I think my daughter is the next evolutionary step…so perhaps tacanderson is right…

  5. Lazlo Hollyfield is the man.

    My brain works best in single-threaded mode. It can handle multiple threads, but each thread degrades the performance of the other active ones.

    I have a theory that some diseases e.g. autism are brain advances that we can comprehend, so why not?

  6. I find that I am increasingly distracted when in front a PC. Be it at work, or at home. I think the WWW is a vast distraction. Sure, for a lot of us it is central to work, and all that. But I sometime wonder, what did people +do+ with all of their time before computers sucked up so much of it? Talk to eachother more, watch more TV, do exercise, spend more time with their kids?! Hard to believe that most of the world's population don't even have a computer, or use the WWW. For us it seems so important, for most people, it's nothing! This is interesting – http://www.miniature-earth.com/

  7. I feel the same way, probably similar to how people felt about TV and then cable TV and video games. It's funny how technology is advancing entertainment and undermining our social natures.

    Social means in-person interaction in the case, not virtual.

    I saw Miniature Earth a few years back and find myself wondering if any of the numbers have changed.

    Even though most of the World doesn't have computers, a large percent do have mobile phones, with something like 4 billion handsets on the planet. So, more people than you think have WWW or some form of it.

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