Thinking about multitasking

In that serendipitous flow that blogs excel at, Chukti made contact with me after a quarter of a century. [Great connecting up, Chutki!) And as we conversed he brought up Attention Deficit Trait (as defined by Edward Hallowell) and wondered what I thought of it.

A few days later I was reading The Economist’s Intelligent Life Summer 2006 issue. And found this article by Tim Hindle referring to the same concern; unfortunately it’s hidden behind a premium wall.

I quote from the article. “Mr Hallowell says that people who work in physical isolation are more likely to suffer from ADT than those who share a lively office“.

When I see statements like that I start thinking about popes and catholicism and bears and woods and faeces.

But what do I know?

So I continue to do what I do, and learn from my wife and my children. It’s strange, my wife does not do e-mail. She wants to, and we keep putting off “the lesson”. It will happen. Soon.

But in the meantime.

Watching her deal with her daily routine, and (when and where possible) participating in it, teaches me more about multitasking and dealing with distractions than I could learn in an “office” environment. Let me draw out some themes, briefly.

1. Some of her tasks are regular and inflexible in terms of time. School runs and mealtimes are classic examples.

2. Some are regular but more flexible in the context of precisely when she does them. Shopping and laundry and meal preparation are examples of these. And keeping fit.
3. Some are regular and low-flexibility in terms of time, but she outsources them. Cleaning and ironing and dry-cleaning come to mind.

4. Most of this is done while I am at work and the children are at school, so she does them largely on her own. But she interacts a lot with people while she does them. And she has many interruptions, some welcome, some not. Phones and doorbells ringing. “Outsourced” task handlers needing answers to questions in order to continue. Things to follow up, things to organise.

5. And somewhere within all this, she finds time for herself, to rest, to relax, to read the Bible, to pray. And motivate and spur and cajole and support the rest of us. And stay contented and patient.

What I find particularly fascinating is a constant and dynamic prioritisation process. They say a woman’s work is never done. And sometimes it seems to me that as a result, their concept of what is important and what is not is very well defined.
Yes, I can learn a lot about multitasking from her. And I try to. Especially since she has all this without e-mail and IM and RSS, and has learnt how to deal with it all.

This mix of must-do and may-do, of time-inflexible and time-flexible, interspersed with personal and household recharging, this mix tells me a lot about how 21st century management could be. Not assembly line but networked household. With adults and children and friends and service providers. I learn a lot about prioritisation and pragmatism from my wife.

LifeKludger, if you read this, maybe you can give us your take on all this. You probably know more about working in isolation than I’ll ever learn.

12 thoughts on “Thinking about multitasking”

  1. Processing interuption: JP, having problems reconciling the quote in your post with one in the link to the interview you give. The interview doesn’t mention isolation. I think I’m stuck outside the premium wall – isolated from understanding. Can you shoot me a contextual snippet of where the isolation quote exists? Maybe shoot me an email? Thanks.

  2. Hi Dave, the article is headed The Perils of Multitasking. It’s to be found on page 149 of the Summer 2006 edition of Intelligent Life. [How I wish I could just give you my password, given that I am a print subscriber. They should let me do it free of charge for up to 100 article sends a year, or something like that. Free recommendation. the best advertising they could get.]

    It’s an 8 paragraph single page article written by Tim Hindle, the management editor of the Economist.

    Para 1 defines ADT. Para 2 looks at a study of workers somewhere in California and how they get disturbed by things like e-mail. Para 3 looks at ubiquity via mobiles and blackberries. Paras 4, 5 and 6 look at emerging (!?!) etiquette for e-mail. Para 7 stresses the value of asynchronous commun ications.

    And I quote para 8 in full here:

    Mr Hallowell says that people who work in physical isolation are more likely to suffer from ADT than those who share a lively office. He recommends that we walk away from the computer screen “every four to six hours for a human moment, a face to face exchange with a person you like. ” Just make sure the person you choose is not a multi-tasking mainac, who thinks he can send an e-mail, participate in a conference call and watch CNN — all at the same time as he pays you enough attention for you, if you are lucky, to reduce your own attention deficit.

    Not everyone chooses their physical isolation, which is why I thought your opinion would be even more telling than usual :-)

  3. I don’t want your password. A copy/paste would do. :)

    Anyways, there’s lots of issues in there for me. The particular one I needed clarification for is how Mr Hallowell reconciles the statements that “people who work in physical isolation are more likely to suffer from ADT than those who share a lively office” and also says, in the interview on Digerati’s Domain, “Warren Buffett sits in a little office in the middle of nowhere and spends a lot of his time just thinking.”

    On the surface these seemed contradictory to me.

    I’ve more, but you’ll have to wait…I’m suppossed to be working…and even though I enjoy this more, as yet it does not pay the bills! ;)


  4. I frequently cite CADD (Customer Attention Deficit Disorder) in presentations.

    CADD is that golden moment when – unable to focus any further, -on hearing more information on yet another feature or function or product or module, the customer starts think of the last email or the next meeting or the need to collect the kids from school that evening.

    CADD occurs when we are unable to speak in the customers language / to hold their attention / to give context – so we talk at them in the vain hope that something we say will “stick”.

  5. Hullo

    Dave just referred to Majora Carter’s talk. What a coincidence – Majora is a friend and fellow activist! Fitting that this ref. comes back to me after I prodded JP on the subject of ADT!

  6. Pingback: lifekludger

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