Multitasking and Classical Music

Two recent print-media articles begging to be linked:

First, the Autumn of the Multitaskers in this month’s Atlantic. Despite the age-of-Internet theme, the full article is only available to subscribers. The thesis is one I’ve seen before (e.g., in GTD). Namely: although we might feel like we’re accomplishing more when multitasking, we actually end up less productive, and eventually we’ll lose our minds if we continue to overload our sense. The writer takes the idea further than I’ve seen before, incorporating several astonishing indicators from the zeitgeist, including this NSFW quote from Jennifer Connelly that I won’t reprint, and several foreign policy and domestic political examples of how multitasking is failing our culture and our country.

There is a generational divide at work here. Most in previous generations (say, people over 40) didn’t come online until the Internet was nearly full-blown with spam, entertainment news, popups, advertising, streaming stock quotes, rich media services, IM, Facebook, Flash, etc.. These people generally deal poorly with information and sensory overflow because they had no incremental introduction.

The younger generations (people under 25) don’t remember the world before the Internet and multipurpose portable devices, and thus think it entirely normal to watch TV, surf the web with a few open windows, talk on the phone (perhaps VoIP), and IM at the same time. At least. And they’re bored if they don’t have at least have three or four tasks going simultaneously. This isn’t to say that these gen-Yers are actually doing a good job at it — I find myself often answering computer-related questions from my younger siblings because they can’t actually read a focused page or two of dense text on the computer (e.g., a readme file) in one sitting — but rather that they don’t experience the flow as psychologically overwhelming.

That leaves my (in between) generation, generally people born in the 1970’s. Those of us who grew up with early low-bandwidth wide area networks — I started on BITNET, USENET, and BBS’s in the early- to mid-1980’s — have better mechanisms for coping and prioritizing. Perhaps because our multitasking options were relatively limited, we haven’t leaped on the bandwagon to the same extent as others. I personally don’t mind two simultaneous tasks — e.g., perusing RSS headlines and listening to MP3s — but more than that doesn’t interest me. (I don’t count it as “multitasking” in the same sense where one of the tasks is just waiting, e.g., for code to compile or a large upgrade to download).

Please feel free to destroy my broad generalizations here in the comments.

While we’re on the subject of multitasking, I fall into the “subtle exception” category described in Getting Things Done:

The Multitasking Exception

There’s a subtle exception to the one-item-at-a-time rule. Some personality types really need to shift their focus away from some task for at least a minute in order to make a decision about it. When I see this going on with someone, I let him take two or sometimes three things out at once as he’s processing. It’s then easier and faster for him to make a choice about the action required.

I find this trick particularly helpful in getting unstuck. Frequently, when drafting briefs, I’ve rewritten a sentence eight or nine times and it still doesn’t seem to get across the necessary idea efficiently and without making the reader do any hard work. Switching to another (usually simpler) task, if only for one or two minutes, is often enough to come back and do it right in one swoop. In this situation (and probably only in this situation), multitasking actually saves me time.

Second, the Well Tempered Web (by Alex Ross, music critic with a blog) in this week’s New Yorker. This one is more naturally available in complete form online. Ross manages to weave together Wagner, Snakes on a Plane, the Long Tail, and Rick Rubin. Worth reading. (And while you’re at it, check out Adam Gopnik’s piece on abridgments, which unfortunately is not available online.)

Lest you all think all I read is the New Yorker and the Atlantic: it’s not true. I’m just not at liberty to disclose my other sources at this time.