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Shakespeare Would Have Had One Ball

Recently,  I have had occasion to have several windows open in my operating system as I attempt to achieve some kind of productivity. In addition to having two monitors on in my home office, from time to time, I may also have my work laptop open on a separate desk behind me, displaying yet more programs or activities. As I work my way through my  to-do list, I am aware of how I’m “matrixing” my time, as a former boss used to call it. I will work away at one project and will need to wait for a screen to refresh, or for a distant server to respond to a request. This causes me to bump over to the next task, or screen, (or Spider Solitaire) and continue working away at what had been going on there before needing to wait for something to happen.

Thus, one modern version of “multi-tasking” has been born from all the forced “waiting” that our otherwise lightning fast computer systems impose upon us.

Much of what I need to accomplish depends on the speed and reliability of my Internet connection, and the speed and reliability of remote systems, be that a remote webmail server or a remote learning management system server or a remote software application server. As we move more and more of our computing power to the cloud, we will inevitably experience greater wait times. I don’t care what the hype says about solid state servers or increased bandwidth to the masses.  Working remotely might get faster but it won’t be as fast as it would be if all the processing were happening right here on my desk.  In any case, many of us have chosen to fill those wait times with Spider Solitaire productive activity working on the next task while we wait for the results of our previous task to take effect.

Add to this multiscreen, multitasking behaviour the constant presence of our new appendage – the mobile device with all its apps. We are all mental and cognitive jugglers with – dare I say it – a plethora of virtual balls.

We are evolving into a de facto multitasking workforce and I think this is simultaneously expensive and not very productive. A lose/lose situation. We are told by experts that single-tasking is really the only productive way to work. Multitasking is a fallacy, existing really as a series of single-tasking events in sequence. (Here is an article about this. Here is another one. Take your pick.)  As our brains attempt to manage the switching costs, paid out in loss of cognitive function, of repeatedly leaving one task unfinished in favour of proceeding to continue on with the next incomplete task, we lose time, energy and the ability to synthesize complex ideas.

The actual cost? Although this is a vast generalization, we are losing the ability to focus deeply and think creatively.  I think this is a huge loss and I do see this loss on a grand societal scale. It takes time to consider and reflect on our lives, our families, work, passions – all the elements that make up for a balanced way of living. We are, collectively, moving away from being a thoughtful society and into being a busy society in which ADD behaviour is rapidly becoming normative behaviour.

Real creativity, real revelation, true innovation – these valuable and expected outcomes of “successful societies” – these traits can’t arise out of a society that can’t focus long enough to complete one task well, from beginning to end.  If our political leaders  wish to be truly focused on closing an innovation and/or productivity gap, I would strongly urge them to consider working on forging some new cultural expectations on what true productivity looks like. It doesn’t look like “always being busy”. It looks like “producing well-thought-out, well-planned, quality output”.  We need to reward thoughtful behaviours, single-tasking, creative and artistic endeavours, and any type of task that requires focus and clarity of thinking. And I think we need to pay attention to this sooner rather than later, before we devolve into a jumble of tales, told by idiots, full of sound and fury, and signifying nothing.*

*Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 26-28) Wanna bet that Shakespeare would have had only one screen open at a time?

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