Slowing Down

August 25, 2010 | Present

There’s been a lot of press over the past month or two about the possible dangers of multitasking, and how it can hurt our ability to focus and remember. But it was only last night, driving home from work, and not distracted by all the other web pages fighting for my attention, that I really “got” the story. Listening to this interview with Matt Richtel, the journalist who has been reporting this topic for the NYTimes, I was able to  gave some attention to the topic.

Much of the research is still on-going, some of the findings are pretty interesting:

  • Every time you check your email [on a mobile device?] you experience stress.
  • Checking our devices reduces the degree to which we’re engaged in the world around us.
  • It’s important for us to take breaks from our devices in order to be physically healthy.
  • By being constantly interrupted, or drawn to our devices, we have less time to process the day’s input, let our minds wander, and to think creatively.
  • Even small things, like hyperlinks in text, reduces our focus on what we’re reading, and decreases comprehension.
  • And, from much earlier research, people can only really focus on one task at a time. (The specific example he gave was that we can’t listen to more than one conversation at a time, but generalizes to: multitasking is ineffective.)

Individually, most of these aren’t really surprising — we kinda know them already. But the idea that there may be brain-chemistry explanations for them, potentially with long-term mental-health implications, is the big deal. He uses food as an analogy — both food and technology nourish us and are essential, but overindulging can be unhealthy. Some technologies are akin to “brussels sprouts” while others are more like “cookies.”

After hearing the story I started to think about my iPad. Lots has been written about how the iPad, with less emphasis on multitasking and multiple simultaneous windows, encourages greater concentration and focus. It’s much easier to, for example, read a book, or watch a video on an iPad because it’s harder to quickly jump to another app. It may not be the ideal environment for power-users, but the result is a calmer experience.

The story also reminded me of when, in “The September Issue,” Vogue creative director Grace Coddington tells of working with photographer Norman Parkinson. His advice to her: “Always keep your eyes open, keep watching because whatever you see out the window can inspire you.”

So… my immediate resolutions: remove distracting apps from my iPhone (goodbye We Rule), stop checking my phone so frequently for new messages, try, as much as possible, to use my iPad instead of my laptop, and… slow down. We’ll see how it goes.

In the spirit of calming down (and to give this post at least one image) check out Oblique Strategies for the iPhone.

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