Skip to main content

WBEZ News

Information Overload and the Tricky Art of Single-Tasking

Multitasking is a myth, says Daniel Levitin.

This was the premise underlying the first of the tasks posed by WNYC's Note to Self podcast. I had signed up for their five-day set of challenges in hopes of decluttering my brain of the uselessly consumed Internet detritus to get a boost of creative energy. And now my first elimination target was multitasking.

Levitin is a neuroscientist. He should know. But it's 8:30 a.m., and I've got 16 Internet tabs on my computer, three more tabs on my phone, two opened emails, a pending phone call and a scrolling Twitter timeline. And I'm doing perfectly well. I'm clearly an exception.

Of course, I am not. As Levitin put it to Note to Self, "You're not actually doing four or five things at once, because the brain doesn't work that way." Instead, "you're rapidly shifting from one thing to the next, depleting neural resources as you go."

In fact, the onslaught of online content has us shifting among online and offline activities a lot — really a lot. Our attention switches every 45 seconds, according to Gloria Mark, an informatics professor at the University of California, Irvine. By 9 a.m., I had more tabs, emails, calls, plans, lists — while also listening to a story and taking a survey. I was caught up in the process of consuming.

"Information overload is not something new," Note to Self host Manoush Zomorodi tells NPR. "It has been dated to the 13th century. But what is new is the pace. And what we're finding is loss of focus."

To get a grip on that focus, All Tech invited you to participate in the Note to Self"Infomagical" challenge. It involved five daily challenges: spend a day focused on one task at a time, tidy up your app collection, avoid meaningless memes and trending topics, discuss something for at least seven minutes and set a longer-term resolution or "mantra."

Several of us at NPR tried the challenge — and a challenge it really was.

For starters, most of us chose the goal of "being more creative" (the challenge begins with a choice of an information goal) and then struggled to evaluate ourselves against hard-to-define thresholds for improvements in creativity. Secondly, unplugging and avoiding memes or trends in many instances cut contrary to the requirements of our jobs. But we had our takeaways.

The day of single-tasking proved the most powerful for me and Malaka Gharib, editor over at Goats and Soda.

Malaka reported feeling more mindful of her distractions ("I had to repeat the word 'focus' in my head to keep going with the task," she says), more appreciative of her analog experiences (eating without looking at her phone helped her better appreciate the work and care her husband put into making her lunch). She also felt more aware and thereby more victorious about finishing tasks.

"Single-tasking made me feel like I had more time to complete tasks and I didn't feel so rushed," she writes. "My greatest creative victory of the week went into doing some nail art I wanted to try out (three stripes of different shades of purple nail polish). I felt like I could do it because I didn't feel so frantic."

Carol Ritchie's Zen iPhone home screen.
Carol Ritchie's Zen iPhone home screen. (Carol Ritchie/NPR)

I didn't fare so well. I struggled to prioritize my tasks and then, like Malaka, had to remind myself to focus. With the short attention span of an expert digital consumer, I launched into things with curiosity and optimism only to move on, with false satisfaction of busy-ness, before finishing. (For context, it took me overcoming more than a dozen distractions today to get to this line of the story.)

Malaka and editor Carol Ritchie also found gratification in the process of clearing their phones from unused or, bytidying guru Marie Kondo's standards, less joy-eliciting apps. Carol organized her apps into eight folders on the second screen and found the difference stunning.

"No more scanning around for something that just might need doing or checking," she says. "I go where I intend, do what I want, and then I click off. Now I can't believe I put up with all that clutter on the one device that is most important to me."

Carol also recounts her experience going social media-free at a concert: "As it started, I saw screens light up all around me, but by sheer force of will resisted the pull of my phone. After the first minute, I forgot about it. Maybe — who knows? — enjoyed the performance a little bit more for it."

Over several similar challenges (like this failed ambition to disconnect over last Thanksgiving) I know that phone-free is not for me. Wasteful clicking is part of the habit, sure, but like Matthew Malady over at The New Yorker, I love the thrill of constant learning (though he goes as far as calling it the "useless agony" of going offline).

"Infomagical" results show that by the end of the challenge, 71 percent of participants felt less overloaded by information. And I realized that maybe I wasn't overloaded to begin with, but not selective enough, getting enthralled with the process of opening, starting, thinking up and launching. Now it's time to focus on seeing things through — like this article.

via NPR

Get the WBEZ App

Download the best live and on-demand public radio experience. Find out more.

CLOSE X