Doing several things badly…

I know this marks me as a Hopeless Old Fogey, one who doesn’t understand that The Millennials (the “largest generation” by dint of making the “generation” open-ended) are actually mutants whose brains work differently. I’ve heard that often enough, one way or another

But I continue to believe that multitasking–whether under that name or under the fancy name Continuous Partial Attention–is a great way to do several thing badly rather than doing one thing well.

I go so far as to believe that, if some reasonable level of quality is part of the definition of “doing things,” you can accomplish more through focus than through multitasking–in the long run, you’ll get more done.

That includes, by the way, enjoying the music you listen to more because you actually listen to it, enjoying movies or TV more because you’re actually watching them, enjoying books more because you’re actually reading them instead of making them #1 amongst all the distractors…

Paul R. Pival at The Distant Librarian posted this item linking to a study that seems to show that distractors actually do distract. Or, to put it another way, that you don’t learn as well when there are all sorts of other things going on–that CPA results in less effective learning.

I don’t know whether the gurus of gengen, those who proclaim that Today’s Generation Really Is Different (and will never change, and we must transform everything we do to cater to their preferences, and too bad if it alienates non-mutants) will ignore this report, say it doesn’t apply to the real mutants, or argue that it doesn’t matter, or find some other way of dismissing it.

I feel confident that they won’t agree that multitasking–while it may be necessary in lots of cases, and while some people (but, I suspect, not “some generations”) do it better than others–is not the preferred condition for high-quality accomplishment or enjoyment.

Feed readers: Dorothea Salo points up a key omission in my grumpy comment–that, frequently, there’s just no single task that deserves your full attention. In those cases, multitasking makes perfectly good sense. Some people are better at this than others… Go read her comment. She’s right.

12 Responses to “Doing several things badly…”

  1. I think you are right. I have been on an E.P. Thompson bender and reading once more about the truly catastrophic nature of the industrial revolution…some parallels here. Reflection on one thing at a time.
    But please, you must see this (EPT ‘s last book was on Blake).
    To me this all connects becuase it makes sense to take the time to see it whole. The idea is of a continous counterculture.

  2. I guess the unexamined assumption here is that everything we do requires full and undistracted attention.

    I don’t think that’s true — and speaking for myself only, if I try to give full and undistracted attention to something that doesn’t fill my brainspace, it quite simply fails to work, whereas if I allow myself an additional task, I do fine.

    I can’t code Java and do something else; coding Java is too hard. But I can switch off between working on presentation slides and answering email and do just fine.

    In my opinion, quite a few face-to-face meetings are a waste of time because they demand 100% attentional bandwidth out of everybody there but neither need nor use it. Meetings by IM, now…


  3. walt says:


    You’re absolutely right (no great surprise), and thanks for pointing that out. [Don’t get me started on meetings that take place because they’re Regular Meetings, whether or not there’s a real agenda… In general, the groups I’d been involved with in RLG’s final years had learned to avoid that time trap.]

    Much of the time, there really isn’t a single task that deserves full attention. At those times, I wish I was better at multitasking…although, actually, I manage.

    My somewhat over-the-top posting (which, I now see, needs one more correction) comes from frustration at the sense that it’s a good thing for CPA to in fact be “continuous”–that it’s just fine to never give full attention to a single task.

    I don’t think that’s true, I don’t think it’s true for the Mutant Millennials (who I don’t believe exist), and I think it’s a dangerous assumption because it reduces people’s capacity for first-rate work.

    But, to repeat, you’re right: Much of the time, there’s no task that requires or deserves full attention.

    The last note (“YMMV”) is also key. While I question whether there’s any large mass of people who can actually do their best creative work or their best learning while simultaneously doing two or three other things, “we”–in the broadest sense–have a wide range of capacities for when less demanding activities are either damaged by distractors, benefited by “other stuff going on” (which aren’t distractors if they don’t distract), or simply not affected.

    I suspect secondary stimuli are distractors for me more often now than they were, say, a decade ago. That may be because I’m doing more “primary” work on my own time now, or it may be because I’m less young.

    If someone tries to convince me that, in general, younger people are better at handling multiple stimuli for less-than-primary tasks, I’ll believe that. Or that some people are just better at it than others.

    On the other hand, it’s easy to carry CPA too far. The statistics on cell phone use during driving are pretty convincing–it’s more dangerous than moderate drinking–and I for one don’t need statistics: Lately, nearly every bonehead move by another driver comes about when he or she has a phone to his or her ear. The problem there is that, while listening to music is a secondary form of attention, talking on a cell phone tends to be primary, and the driving itself becomes secondary. As I’ve said in a “disContent” column, those people aren’t really *there*–they’re on the phone. And boy, does it show.

  4. Elena says:

    A minor dissent – if people actually did devote “100% attentional bandwidth” at meetings, I suspect they’d be both shorter and more productive.

    We did manage to get some regular meetings down in length a bit by requiring everyone to submit departmental/project reports via email to all attendees ahead of time. It helps the person taking minutes, too, because s/he can just paste that content in with all the names spelled properly by the person who knows the most about the situation.

    To return to your original point about Millennials… They don’t seem like “they really are different” to me. However, in the interest of argument, perhaps we could get some Millennial volunteers to get brain scans. Surely, if they really are mutants, there’d be some physical evidence of it.

    I’m kidding, of course. MRIs would require them to sit still for close to an hour with no cell phone and do nothing but listen to one song at a time, and that would never work.

  5. walt says:

    Ah, Elena, but if you believe Stephen Abram (and he’s always right, with oceans of evidence for every statement), the Millennials have bigger brains (10-15% higher IQ than boomers, although I’m not sure what that has to do with brain size). I must have missed the JAMA papers…

    You do have a point about applying full attention to shorten the meeting, but that assumes goal-oriented meetings…not always a safe assumption. “We have this meeting weekly because we’ve always had this meeting weekly, and who knows? Someone might have a topic!”

  6. Re: IQ – I’m halfway through writing a post on that general issue. There *is* actually a tendency for IQ scores to increase over time – except that as far as I can see the trend ran from the 1950s to the 1990s or so. It’s called the Flynn Effect (named for a professor at my former university).

    Of course, the question is whether or not you see an IQ test as an interesting or relevant proxy of intelligence. I don’t. But hey, I only had four years of psychology before I was a librarian, so I probably don’t know what I’m talking about.

    More generally, I’m in pretty much full agreement with what Walt says, though Dorothea’s caveat is a good one. I do wonder, though, if by reducing the bandwidth we apply to a given task/conversation, we reduce the bandwidth requirement of that conversation (e.g., it’s circular – IM is low bandwidth because people don’t give it their full attention, rather than “IM doesn’t require my full attention, because it’s low bandwidth”).

  7. walt says:

    Ah, another post that\’s become a multifaceted conversation. Simon: I think your four years serve you well. IQ is probably/maybe a proxy for one form of intelligence out of many, but I\’m not even sure about that. (Disclaimer: I\’ve never applied to Mensa or been interested in doing so.)

    Just as SATs are, at best, a proxy for one aspect of likely success in college. (That one, I can say from personal experience: I used to be Very Good at multiple-choice tests, and did absurdly well on the SATs. Not, in my case, an indicator of great success in higher education, although UC did give me my BA. Now if I had only been able to find work that consisted of multiple-choice tests!)

    I\’m also not trying to put down whatever generation you choose. I believe today\’s students [in this case I think I mean anyone born after 1975] are expected to deal with many more kinds of literacy and learning than those of us who grew up pre-PC/pre-Internet. And based on the number of post-1975 people I know (more than you might expect), I think we\’ll all be just fine. But that doesn\’t mean I believe those folks are superhuman or mutants.

    Now, as to your last paragraph…that\’s a really interesting notion. Hmm.

    [I was about to say, \”Darn. Now I\’ve got to subscribe to yet another blog.\” But I\’ve been reading VALIS for a long, long time. With pleasure.]

  8. Ruth Ellen says:

    Mostly agree. Would completely agree if I hadn’t seen my brother-in-law watch a football game, listen to music on headphones, and read a book at the same time. He knew what had gone on in the football game AND knew what he had read. Two primary activities. By the way, the concept of primary/secondary activities makes for a great explanation of why I can listen to music while I drive but not listen to books on tape. Thanks.

  9. “I\’m also not trying to put down whatever generation you choose. I believe today\’s students [in this case I think I mean anyone born after 1975] are expected to deal with many more kinds of literacy and learning than those of us who grew up pre-PC/pre-Internet.”

    Certainly didn’t think you were :-). As for the second point, that’s true – but on the other hand, things are easier now. Today, we have Google. Back in the 1970s, you were encoding Boolean searches onto punch cards. In some ways, I think today’s generation has it easier. (And which by the way, I see a certain contradiction between the arguments that the Millennials are way smarter than preceding generations, and the arguments that we have to simplify library catalogues etc because they’re too complex compared to the other tools that Millennials use – surely if they’re smarter than Boomers, they can learn to use tools that Boomers can?)

  10. walt says:

    Innit mysterious that my own comments wind up with extraneous backslashes? And nobody elses? Hello, WordPress! Anyway: I love your final sentence, Simon. And you make a good point in the rest of the post.

  11. Bill says:

    I suggest reading the Gonzalez and Mark study at

  12. walt says:

    Thanks. I will (I’ve printed it off. I won’t even comment about journal design that doesn’t understand the significance of indented paragraphs other than those below headings…that’s a different topic.)

    Side note: The automatic email to me about this comment was flagged by Gmail as spam–presumably because it includes a hotlink. Strange.