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Lessons from a Couch

I was looking around at the electronic devices we use everyday. None of them are single-function, for example:
  • My mobile phone is also my camera, diary, MP3 player, GPS device and multimedia device
  • My camera is also a YouTube uploader, GPS tracker and a photo-editing device
  • My desk phone at work is also an address book
  • My MP3 player is also a radio and a storage device
  • My e-book reader also surfs the web
Mark Zuckerberg recently announced that HTC has developed a number of smart phones with Facebook deeply embedded into the interface and that there are dozens more planned for release in the near future.

I recall the good old days when a phone was used to make phone calls. Now, every device we have needs to be able to do more than one thing. In fact, one of the hallmarks of a modern smart-phone is that it is "multitasking" - that it has the ability to run two or more applications simultaneously with the ability to switch between them. Older smart-phone operating systems didn't have this feature. But we wanted it, so we got it.

I once went with my wife to buy a couch. We also needed a spare bed. Why not buy a couch that folds out into a bed? Seems perfectly logical. The salesperson told us that we have two options. Either we buy a couch that is also a bed, or we buy a bed that is also a couch. The point being that, typically, furniture is designed to be good at one thing. The other thing is an add-on. So either we buy a comfortable couch or a comfortable bed, but we won't be able to get both in one. In fact, the salesman did a great job of talking us out of buying either.

I'm not sure that holds true for electronic devices today. Perhaps the calculator watch is good as a watch, but those tiny buttons make it difficult to use as a calculator. However, as a rule, I think that most devices made today are pretty good at everything (just look at the new LG Optimus 3D phone). Unfortunately, sometimes the smart-phones are great for all of the extras, but phone call quality is lousy (e.g., iPhone 4.0).

I remember when I was putting together my resume in preparation for my initial foray into the job market. I was strongly advised to write that I have the ability to multitask. In effect, I was saying that I was able to concentrate on many different tasks simultaneously. I was efficient. I was productive. I could handle switching between different types of jobs, constant interruptions and distractions.

A BBC article, dated 25 August 2010, discusses the issue of multitasking. According to this article, studies have shown that:
"...multi-tasking is a good way to do several things badly."
The article cites various studies that show that people are able to concentrate on more than one thing at a time only if what they are doing is a learned, mechanical activity (such as, while driving, switching gears, checking the mirrors and singing along to the radio.) However, when doing two things at once that require the same part of the brain, we fail badly, even if we do the combination of tasks often (such as talking on the phone and typing an email at the same time.)

A distinction also needs to be made between different types of multitasking. David Crenshaw, author of "The Myth of Multitasking: How "Doing It All" Gets Nothing Done" says in this interview with Lifehacker that there are two types of multitasking: background tasking and switchtasking.

Background tasking is, for example, watching television while exercising (hopefully the "watching television" part is the background task.) Switchtasking is juggling two or more tasks by alternating your focus between them.

Background tasking may sound innocuous. What could possibly be bad about listening to the radio while driving? According to the BBC article, US studies have shown that students who watch television while doing homework consistently receive lower grades.

Far more concerning is the issue of switchtasking. According to Crenshaw, switchtasking is a culturally acceptable because the perception is that it's a productive method of working. Actually, it is not.

This very interesting 2006 article in the Gallup Management Journal shows that constant interruptions slow productivity. The article is an interview with Gloria Mark, Ph.D., associate professor at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences at the University of California, Irvine, and a leading expert on work interruptions. Dr. Mark's studies have shown that the average amount of time spent on a task before switching is three minutes and five seconds and that the average amount of time people spent using a device before switching tasks was two minutes and five seconds.
You think you sit at your PC for a long time, but it's not true. You usually sit at it briefly before you switch to something else. You're interrupted by a person, by a phone call, or you do something on paper.
Interestingly, people interrupt themselves just as often as they are interrupted by others. Why is that? Instant gratification, perhaps?

What is obvious is that because of the technology in our lives today, we think that we can get more done within a shorter time-frame. The truth is, we don't want to box ourselves into a single role, like a production-line worker whose job it is to do only one task all day. However, like the couch-bed/bed-couch issue or the smart-phone with bad call quality, we can get more done, just not as well as if we spent more time dedicated to the one task.

Comments are most welcome!
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  1. interesting thought. typing this on my microwave

  2. I use my iPhone as a pillow!

    You make great points!

    Thanks for the Tweet!


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