Asking more relevant questions about focus and multitasking

I’ve been uncomfortable with the ongoing discussions about the promise or threat of multitasking without being quite able to articulate why. Stowe Boyd finally helped my crystallize my concerns with a nice dissection of the most recent wave of debate on the topic. Let me extract two paragraphs from his excellent analysis:

So, the war on flow continues. I liked the study from a few years back that equated multitasking with smoking dope in its effects, and perhaps the most masterful attack was leveled by Christine Rosen in her Myth Of Multitasking (see Christine Rosen Joins The War On Flow), or Nick Carr, who said the Web is making us stupid. They are all looking backward, and using old tools to measure, ineffectively, what is emerging.


If you judge a juggler by how many times the balls hit the floor and contrast that with someone throwing and catching one ball at a time, the juggler will lose. But the juggler is doing something else. You could argue that doing it that way makes no sense, that throwing one ball at a time is more efficient, leads to less sleepless nights, and doesn’t confuse the mind. But it isn’t juggling.

The War On Flow, 2009: Why Studies About Multitasking Are Missing The Point
Stowe Boyd
Sun, 30 Aug 2009 12:33:48 GMT

The current discussion around whether multitasking is good or bad flounders on a host of unarticulated and unexamined assumptions. The question is not about whether multitasking is a better way to do old forms of work; it is about what skills and techniques do we need to develop to deal with the forms of work that are now emerging. There is a complex interaction between an evolving environment and developing technologies. Much of the discussion to date is comparable to trying to understand the automobile as a horseless carriage.

I am reminded of an old observation by author Larry Niven; "good science fiction writers predict cars – great science fiction writers predict traffic jams." One of the useful things to be done is to spend a more time watching the juggling (to borrow Stowe Boyd’s image) and appreciating it on its own terms instead of criticizing it for what it isn’t.