The Myth of Multitasking

In one of the many letters he wrote to his son in the 1740s, Lord Chesterfield offered the following advice: “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.” To Chesterfield, singular focus was not merely a practical way to structure one’s time; it was a mark of intelligence. “This steady and undissipated attention to one object, is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle, and agitation, are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.”

Christine Rosen, “The Myth of Multitasking,” The New Atlantis, Spring 2008

I have to say that, despite being a dyed-in-the-wool computers and writing guy, I find this sort of discussion refreshing. In my own work, I find that a limited amount of multitasking is very helpful. Right now, for example, I am listening to WILL’s program Sidestep. (It’s pretty good, but amateurish in some ways).

I discovered as a teenager that this kind of white noise is helpful. On the other hand, after working online full time for a few years I have discovered that it’s best to turn off email while I am writing or commenting on papers. I sometimes put on a video instead of a podcast, but I usually listen more than watch.

There’s also been a few stories recently about “no email Fridays” and the like which seems to confirm that multitasking can be counter-productive. I am not sure that I would go as far as Chesterfield, but it may be true that what we thought was helpful is going to turn out to be much less so.

I sense an economic blind spot. I have been thinking about Twitter in these terms, too. A colleague, for example, shared this post (via listserv) on “25 Twitter Tips for College Students.” What I find so interesting is that each item on the list is either unnecessary or better done in other ways.

Why have so many online “presences” at all? I think Twitter– and the Iphone– illustrate the absurdities that arise when consumerism meets technological fetishism. I’m hoping for a backlash that focuses on using these tools well.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn’t want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so.

I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com.

I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that ‘at’ symbol] writinginthewild.com

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