I’m at the end of a conference week and I’ve just moved hotels. This is normally a hassle, but the broadband in the prior hotel blew, which means I’m a week behind on everything. Once I’ve checked into the room, the first thing I do is fire up Safari and watch the first page load. Nearly instant.
Sweet, sweet broadband.
As we know, high-speed access to the Internet is the key to information bliss in The Cave, but we’re not in our Cave, are we? We’re in New Zealand on the 9th floor of a strange hotel where they tell me the water flushes down the toilet in the opposite direction. I haven’t checked; I’m busy building my Cave away from home.
There are two goals with the process: creating a sense of comfortable familiarity while also managing the interestingness of the surroundings. I start by positioning the desk so I have line of sight to the TV, and then I remove all non-essential, distracting crap from the surface. I turn on the desk lamp and the bathroom light and turn off the rest of the room lights, creating a comfortable blanket of darkness around the desk.
The window stays open unless it’s a significant source of glare. I used to always pull the drapes because I used to see windows as very high-resolution screen savers, which are apt to grab my attention. But, as we’ll see, the interestingness of this natural screen saver outweighs the risk.
Lastly, I need mental background noise to tap into when I’m not focusing on whatever task it is I’m working on. Back at home, my favorite source of white noise is the coffee shop. It’s chock full of people, stories, and familiar, random sounds that fuel my creative forward momentum.
No coffee shop here, so I need to create it. A movie will work, and I get lucky and find Casino Royale, which I’ve already seen.
I spend the next hour and a half doing tasks that don’t require significant attention. I’m scrubbing email, scribbling random thoughts, triaging bugs, tidying articles in progress, and generally doing tasks on the B list. What’s more interesting are my mental breaks. I jump into another tab in Safari and take a glance at del.icio.us, Digg, Google Reader, or other meta-content. I watch the movie for a few moments or glance out the window to see what the world is up to.
These mental breaks share a common trait: they provide rich content, but not rich enough content that I’ll stop working on my B-list tasks.
When Casino Royale is over, the next movie comes on, which is The Majestic, with Jim Carrey. This presents a potential problem. I haven’t seen this movie, and I don’t want to risk it being good and grabbing my attention.
No problem. Wikipedia to the rescue. I spend five minutes reading the plot of The Majestic and I’m done. The summary describes all the plot twists and aspects of the movie that might grab my attention. Reading the Wikipedia summary lobotomizes the interestingness so that the movie becomes structured white noise. I can glance at it for 5 seconds, take my mental content break, and not get lost in wondering where the movie is going because I already know how it’s going to end.
The World is Not a Screen Saver
In Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, he describes how researchers for Sesame Street determined what parts and how much of the show were actually registering with five-year-old kids. What they discovered was that, when presented with toys and quality segments, these children were able to play with toys and remember content from the show just as well as kids who just watched the show.
This research from the late 1960s contradicts a lot of the bitch-slapping directed at multitasking, especially in the recent Autumn of the Multitaskers article. The article summarizes, “we concentrate on the act of concentration at the expense of whatever it is that we’re supposed to be concentrating on”. This article goes on to say that multitasking-related stress prematurely ages us, hampers our ability to focus and analyze, and, in the long term, causes our brains to atrophy.
Compelling stuff. I especially like the reference to one of the studies where “… researchers asked a group of 20-somethings to sort index cards in two trials, once in silence and once while simultaneously listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds.”
Knowing how important having a properly constructed Cave is to me, both at home and remotely, the phrase “listening for specific tones in a series of randomly presented sounds” stands out. Think about how the task of listening for specific tones amongst noise would fit into my Cave environment. The answer is: it wouldn’t. In fact, it would drive me batshit crazy and I’d chase the researcher out of my hotel room with a broom or whatever the hell they call a broom in New Zealand. Of course the students listening for tones in random noise learned less; the researchers were bugging the shit out of them.
The Autumn of the Multitaskers actually leads with a story about how the author crashed his car trying to use his cell phone while driving. He implies, but does not explore, the idea that multitasking is a skill and not a generational curse. The hidden contradiction in the article is that you could just be really bad at multitasking. And my guess is that being really bad at anything you need to do often is potentially a recipe for stress and early aging.
It also reminded me of another thing: I don’t multitask.
Multitasking is a convenient descriptive term for what I do. In fact, to the outside observer, multitasking is a perfect description, but because it’s based on outside observation, it’s misleading.
I don’t multitask. Think about it, you can’t concentrate on two things at once. Yes, to the outsider, I am doing many tasks at once, but in my head I can only do one thing at a time. Where the art is, where the skill is, and what the term should describe is what I do between the tasks. What I do well is a combination of timely, adept context switches combined with content-rich breaks. It looks like this:
And it feels like this.
I deeply consider the thing I’m working on. I sit up straight, furrow my brow, talk to myself, and dig into what I’m doing. My environment is meticulously designed to support this, whether it’s the precise, familiar location of my computer, the blanket of darkness surrounding me, or the white noise I select to provide a mental break focal point.
At some point while working, I will reach a mental block. I quickly assess the magnitude of this block (minor cramp or total fucking blockage?) against the priority of the task (need to finish this now or whenever?) Based on that lightning fast assessment, I either stop or grind it out.
This stop may be a context switch to another task, but it’s often a break to soak in the white noise, and it’s in these pauses that I’m brutally creative. When I stare out the window of the hotel, I see a small harbor full of sailboats, and, somehow, the haphazard arrangement of the colorful sails reminds me of a summer in Minnesota where my jerk of a cousin taught me to play Bloody Knuckles after everyone went to bed. Bloody knuckles, now that was a game, and games remind me of the bizarrely different ways human beings have figured out how to communicate, which is the EXACT topic I’m currently writing about, so I jump back to my MacBook and continue writing.
Or perhaps I don’t find my sailboat segue. Perhaps the harbor takes me in a different direction and I’m inspired to switch tasks. Fine, back to that email where I’ve been writing a response to a flame mail from a well-intentioned engineer who has suddenly realized that he’s been ignoring the web for five years. And it turns out the web has changed a bit and his five-year-old mastery of web technologies is now obsolete. His recent discovery of his irrelevance (cough: Fez) has turned into this flame mail, which requires a careful response. And, you know, email is just another bizarre construction by which we communicate AND HEY that’s the topic I was just writing about, so I switch back to my original writing task.
The actual elapsed time that occurred during the previous three paragraphs is about 10 seconds, including my five-second inspirational pace in front of window. And if you were watching me, you’d think, “restless, unfocused, multitasker”. What you can see now, with internal context, is that I’m really only working on one thing: the article about communication.
Yes, I almost made a switch to another task, extinguishing the flame mail, but even if I did, I’d still have the echo of what I was just doing. Tasks get messed up in my head, yes, but mixing shit up is how you build new shit.
Back to Gladwell’s research. What they learned was that the five-year-olds were “Attending quite strategically, distributing their attention between toy play and viewing so that they were looking at what for them were the most informative parts of the program. This strategy was so effective that the children could gain no more from increased attention.”
Multitasking is the art of distributing your attention and, guess what, you’ve instinctively known how to do it since you were five. What have you done since then? You’ve worried about information overload, you’ve devised a new way to get things done, and you’ve thought “That’s me!” when someone has taken the time to describe something you already knew.
Me, I’m watching how I context switch. I’m learning when I need to switch to a new task or just relate what I want to do with what I’m currently doing. I’m figuring out the right environment to seed my tasks and my non-tasks that push my ideas towards a coherent structure. At the same time, I’m acknowledging that documented excessive structure might sell books and provide misleading comfort, but it doesn’t provide much space for inspiration.
My Cave, wherever I build it, is a deceptively creative structure. I surround myself with creativity-driving, chaotic-seeming natural order, which is built with the understanding that I can only do one thing at a time, but when I stop, I create.