The Backlash Against Multitasking

Last Updated Mar 11, 2011 7:32 PM EST

With so many streams of incoming information, multitasking can seem like a necessity. Switching between a project and urgent emails while listening to a podcast or monitoring a Twitter stream appears to be the only way to get everything done in the 21st century. But what's the cost in depth and rigor of thought associated with all these distractions?
This question has been at the heart of a lively discussion in the blogosphere lately, with many weighing in on the evils of multitasking. The Britannica blog devoted a whole series of posts to the issue, including one by Maggie Jackson, author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, and another by Nicholas "Google is Making Us Stupid" Carr. Continual multitasking, they say, prevents us from thinking deeply and synthesizing information, and weakens our ability to screen out the irrelevant.

So what's the solution? A return to "unitasking" says intent.com in a post instructing readers in the lost art of focus.
To unitask effectively.... We have to get very clear about what we want to do, and very committed to doing it.

Before unitasking, to take a moment to untask. Just stop everything that you are doing to clear your mind. Having untasked completely, now ask yourself, "What do I really want (or need) to do right now?" It is very likely that a clear answer to this question will just pop right into your mind, for having cleared your mind of other people's voices, it is much easier to hear your own.
Once you have chosen what you want to do, imagine the pleasure of doing it (or imagine the pleasure of having done it). Then affirm to yourself, "This is what I want to do.".... You are now able to unitask effectively.
If this seems like a bit of a rigmarole for simply turning off your email and internet, than perhaps you are part of the backlash against the backlash. (On the other hand, if this method seems too lightweight for your addiction, the tech that got you into the problem may also get you out.) HBR's Tom Davenport leads the charge of the naysayers, arguing that all the fretting is itself a waste of time. He says,
The next time you hear someone talking or read someone writing about information overload, save your own attention and tune that person out. Nobody's ever going to do anything about this so-called problem, so don't overload your own brain by wrestling with the issue.
Are you with Carr or Davenport? Multitasking: scourge of the noughties or nothing to get excited about?
(Image of unsafe multitasking by Jagger, CC 2.0)
  • Jessica Stillman On Twitter»

    Jessica lives in London where she works as a freelance writer with interests in green business and tech, management, and marketing.

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