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Jamie Kurtz Promoting architectural simplicty

For quite a while now I’ve been wondering if our culture of text messages, emails, messenger/chat conversations, short YouTube clips, rapid-fire news channels, PodCasts, blog posts, Twitter, and Facebook updates is somehow hurting my ability to focus on and develop deeper concepts. By that I mean really dig in, learn, and add value to some larger-then-me idea. As I write these few sentences, emails are streaming in, the phone is ringing, and no doubt my friends and family are Tweeting and writing on my Facebook wall. And sometimes the urge to check on these things is too much. Actually, most of the time it IS too much – and I give in. In computer terms I am performing a context switch, thus flushing out my cache and starting over with the next task. When I finally get back to writing this blog post, my brain struggles to re-engage and become effective again.

It has been know for a while that even answering emails – while working on other mentally tasking activites – can really set you back. It interrupts flow. So you may spend 1 minute reading an email, but then your brain spends another 20 minutes trying to get back to the point at which you switched from the task at hand to read that email. The term "flow” is often used to describe the state in which the average person is really effective. Their brain is chugging along and they are adding real value to whatever they are working on. (well, I suppose they could be adding dis-value to whatever they’re working on, but that’s another story!).

One of the best books I’ve ever read on productivity is Getting Things Done, by David Allen. He provides a very simple and pragmatic approach to organizing and prioritizing all the “things” we have to do in life – whether small work tasks, or larger life goals. One of Mr. Allen’s tips that really stuck with me – among many – was reserving only certain times of the day for checking email. For example, maybe you check your email at 9am, 12pm, and 4pm. Then in between those times you are working (or playing or painting or walking, etc.). I learned long ago that I work much better by simply turning off the little Outlook “new mail” notifications (both visually and the little bell sound). The goal is to get into a “flow” – a state described very well by David Chaplin in his article on Maximizing Development Productivity:

Being in flow is when you are fully immersed in a task. You are so focused on it that you are almost in a trance like state. Hours can go by without you noticing. Work gets done very fast. When you are in flow you are at running at your highest velocity. It takes approximately 20 minutes to get into flow. However, if you get disturbed and knocked out of flow, it will take another 20 minutes immersion time before you are back in full flow. It is important to stay immersed in flow for long periods at a time to get anything considerable done.

Take a look at the productivity graphs in that article, and compare the “Ideal Productivity” graph to the “Disruptions” graph. Most developers, and probably most people in general, would agree with the idea of “flow”. Further, most people would probably agree that it takes time to re-engage in “flow” – following an interruption.

But I was wondering, what is the relationship between this constant interruption of flow and my ability to actually stay in flow (i.e. ignore the interruptions and stay engaged)? In other words, flip the whole theory upside down. As a people, are we learning to better deal with the constant multi-tasking demands and context switching? Or is a pervasive interruption of flow actually damaging to our ability to really focus on and develop an idea?

I can see in myself, that yes, this constant context switching is altering my modus operandi. My mind seems to crave a context switch!! Am I learning to become bored with a mere 10 minutes of “flow”? As a result of years of multi-tasking, is it now much harder to get myself to focus on anything that is not ultra exiting? Is my brain compelled – even addicted – to catching a quick news article, or read a short blog post, or fire off a Twitter update?

This morning I stumbled on this recent article, http://www.crn.com/it-channel/219401343;jsessionid=DZRE4FY5OPW5JQE1GHPCKHWATMY32JVN, titled “Multitaskers Not Very Good At Multitasking”. This study is early in the exploration of multi-tasking and its relationship with our current-age media, but its results resonate with my thinking:

The subjects were asked to perform a simple cognitive filtering test, to focus on the characteristics of a group of red triangles while ignoring a group of blue triangles. The end result: So-called multitaskers performed worse than people who were not regular media multitaskers, according to Reuters.

Similar findings occurred when the study participants took tests to measure organizational ability and task switching. Multitaskers were slower to shift their attention from one task to another.

While this doesn’t directly speak to my feelings and observations around the interruption of “flow”, it certainly debunks the idea that we are getting better at managing all of our inputs. Such practices as meditation, reading actual books (you know, with pages and chapters), taking naps, and enjoying long walks may need become more than infrequent pleasures. We may find ourselves in a state where these activities are required just to avoid the kind of mental degeneration we are starting to see all around us. While watching 30-second news clips and reading 5-word Facebook updates is certainly enjoyable and keeps us in touch with our friends and family and the rest of the world, I don’t think society can really move forward without deep intellectual engagement in ideas and uninterrupted “flow”.

Posted on Tuesday, January 26, 2010 9:24 AM | Back to top


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