Ming links to this article about research into “Hypertasking” which suggests that although frantic multi-tasking (with the help of phones, IM, email, feeds, etc., etc., etc.) has the appearance of productivity the reality is of significantly reduced performance on the individual cognitive tasks. This is not the first study to suggest that multi-tasking makes you perform less well – for example this, this and this.
In the comments to Ming’s post there are a range of views expressed but two themes emerge:
using the tools available today to _filter_ incoming information and tasks, allowing you to concentrate on the important things
there is indeed a very sharp limit to the power of conscious processing to handle multiple tasks (Miller’s [bliki]SevenPlusOrMinusTwo[/bliki]) but the unconscious mind is capable of many many simultaneous activities.
From my own subjective experience I would suggest that one reason why having too many things to do “simultaneously” hits productivity is because it ignores the way the mind transfers things into unconscious processing.
The trick seems to be to concentrate on one thing sufficiently long that you build up a whole set of pathways relating to it, then “put it down” and move on to something else – the unconscious will still be working away. Do this and you will be surprised how often the answer “just appears” a few hours or days later.
Time-slicing too finely in the conscious domain seems to have the effect that no topic creates enough energy to engage the unconscious learning circuits, so I’m left relying on the distractable power of the conscious alone.
It would be interesting to explore the neuroscience of this a bit further…
From a [bliki]TheoryOfConstraints[/bliki] perspective it would appear that conscious attention is the constraint, so useful questions to consider might be:
How do I get the most out of my conscious processing power?
What else do I have to change to allow my conscious attention to work at its best?
How can I find other ways of processing information (e.g. exploiting my unconscious mind)?