Mastering the high-tech tools that help us
Experts see a rising pushback against digital distraction.
Multitasking has long been a badge of honor for the digitally well-armed, a term equating high personal productivity with computerlike efficiency.
But also widely discussed in recent years has been the notion that – as with computers, so with people – there is a price to pay for distributing attention too widely across tasks. What seems like a hyperproductive approach to work can actually be counterproductive.
Computer scientists have a word for the phenomenon: thrashing. That's when a computer is asked to do so many background tasks at once that its hard drive is overworked. That can paralyze its ability to do the important tasks a user requires.
As for humans, continuously communicating, or reeling in images and data, can dramatically slow our processing abilities as well, say experts in human behavior.
Getting a handle on digital distractions has far-reaching ramifications, says David Wertheimer, executive director of the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California. He says that such intense distractions are leading the American workforce down a road of deepening ineffectiveness.
"I see the American worker becoming less and less productive," says Mr. Wertheimer. "As workplaces get flooded with digital demands, such as constant e-mails and nonstop information, we are in danger of becoming a third-world-style economy, where much movement takes place but little actual effective work is being done."
After all, both computers and humans really only process one thing at a time, says futurist Simeon Spearman. The machines do this so quickly, in parallel processes, that they appear to be multitasking. But they are able to process far more information than humans – and are more capable with each jump in processor speed.
"When you see the demands we put on computers these days and how much they can process, you begin to understand just how much we're being hit by all the time," adds Mr. Spearman.
Laptops, cellphones, and an array of other powerful hand-helds put humans in the teeth of a high-tech maelstrom. This requires humans to become more sophisticated in their daily strategies if they are going to "master their digital environment," says David Allen, the author and productivity guru.
A groundswell of solutions to combat human thrashing has been under way, from individuals embracing digital-free days to broader adoption of the highly sophisticated, now-iconic "Getting Things Done," a work-life management system created by Mr. Allen in 2001 and now commonly known as GTD.
GTD encourages users to organize vast amounts of personal information, then get it stored and off their minds except when they deal with it directly. The idea is that this frees them to be more productive. It organizes tasks by context and urgency, rather than by time and day as old-fashioned systems have done.
Self-described "GTD-ers" can be found all over the Internet, many of them "recovering geeks" who are now using their specialized skills – GTD has a software component – to help people fight the digital onslaught.
"We aren't antitechnology," says Mr. Pash, "but we see the need to manage the tools that technology has given us."
His website offers a wealth of tips and tricks: software that blocks the user from accessing designated websites during a workday (anything from your favorite shopping site to social networks such as Facebook or MySpace); newly created stripped-down software such as "WriteRoom," a word processor that offers few distractions; and specialized downloads to automate routine activities such as backing up information on your hard drive.
"It's remarkable how hard it is to just get a simple task completed with no distractions in today's overloaded digital environment," adds Pash.
Managing distraction has become a front-burner issue for self-described "supergeek" Ariel Meadow Stallings, a marketing manager at Microsoft who has launched a year-long project she dubs "52 nights unplugged."
The idea to disconnect from all digital contraptions for one night a week, over the course of a year, came to her in January after attending a seminar on how to manage digital overload.
"I realized that I was in a constant state of 'partial tasking,' " says Ms. Stallings. "I had the illusion that I was multitasking but the truth was, I was not actually doing anything fully except thinking about what to do next and how to keep in a state of a sort of intoxicated hyperactivity."
Stallings says she realized that she had begun to lose the art of "being fully present" in any activity and wanted to recapture that feeling of deep focus, the kind she says that leads to an actual sense of completion and satisfaction in a task – not to mention actually getting real work done.
She uses her "digital downtime" – Wednesday evenings – to do something in the "real world" that actually has a sense of completion at the end, activities such as crafts or letter writing. She says some of her Microsoft colleagues are on the same wavelength. "My friends actually help me now," she says. "If they see me fiddling with my BlackBerry at a party, they'll come over and ask me why I'm not being fully present."