Where Does The Time Go? ⏰

Why multi-tasking was preventing me from accomplishing my goals.

** Sunday Scaries will be off next week due to personal holiday. I’ll resume the next post on September 30th. Ciao! **

I’ve noticed a significant correlation between my mood and productivity. I am much happier on days when I feel as though I’ve made meaningful progress on a project I care about. Conversely, I feel correspondingly terrible when five o’clock rolls and I’ve hardly made a dent. 

I wanted to know what was happening to cause such a pronounced difference. This seemed to be worth exploring, so I took a good look into my workflow. 

I mostly do work on my laptop. Right now, I’ve got thirteen tabs open. Behind those tabs, eight more applications are running. 

My personal inbox received fifty-three new emails today. I don’t have the courage to count my work inbox. 

On a given day, I will pick up my phone one-hundred and thirty times. Last week, I received one-hundred and eighteen notifications per day. My average time between tasks is about seven minutes. 

This doesn’t seem especially productive. I’m probably worse than most, but I would wager that my stats aren’t far off from the average office worker.

I’ve got a distraction problem. The act of bouncing between activities prevents me from accomplishing my goals. Conflicting demands between communication, administrative tasks, and “real” work create a significant barrier for staying focused. 

Worse yet, some people proudly claim to be “multi-taskers” by nature. Whenever I hear this, I groan. I know this statement is false, because I was the worst offender of them all. Being a multi-tasker wasn’t helping my productivity. Research supports my intuition. 

Stanford Professor Clifford Nass is interested in the cognitive aspects of multi-tasking. His group performed a study that administered a set of tasks to two groups: self-reported chronic multitaskers and light multi-taskers. The results of the study showed that chronic multi-taskers performed worse on tasks that involved prioritization and memory. This included activities that rely on task switching. Ironically, habitual multi-tasking makes us worse at everything — including multi-tasking. Research in this area is surprisingly consistent; a rarity within social sciences. Numerous studies including Dr. Nass’s work and a 2018 crossover between psychology and neuroscience have examined this phenomenon. The field is young, but with demands for our attention growing more persuasive by the day, work in this area is vital to understanding healthy media habits. 

By multi-tasking, we are training our brains to quickly summarize information and move on. This reduces our working memory, preventing us from contemplation and forming deep connections. Our attention is like a desk: there is a limited amount of space we can use for work. Overloading ourselves with information is akin to dumping reams of paper on the desk, and wondering why there isn’t a clean corner for work. 

Multi-tasking also tends to mean information consumption, rather than production. Consumption is easier and rewards our brain with dopamine for each new piece of information. Creating content is harder, and we don’t get that dopamine boost nearly as fast. Although we may feel more satisfied once we are finished, the instant gratification from consumption is a constant temptation. Productivity is measured by output, and multi-tasking inherently gives us a chance to switch back into consumption mode. 

It’s easy to see how this happens. Digital products today have an incredibly rich feedback loop that allows for maximum addictiveness. Hundreds of engineers are working to make these experiences frictionless. For example, Spotify founder Daniel Ek pushed his team to reduce the loading time for songs to under 200 ms. This number is important because it is the length of time it takes for humans to perceive a delay in sensory input. By loading content under this time, we feel as though we have limitless media at our fingertips. The same rule applies to news feeds, inboxes, and messages. Our brain is hard-wired to reward information gathering. This instinct may have helped our ancestors to survive, but is at odds with many higher order goals. If given the choice between instinct and planning, we don’t stand a chance. 

So, what to do? Realizing this is happening is the first step. For me, adding friction to applications that I’m addicted to is usually enough to snap me out of it. This means not only deleting the app, but also using dedicated tools for focusing. Pomodoro timers break my workday into 40 minute segments of focused activity. Applications that track screen time are useful, but only if you have a plan to act on the information. Leaving the phone off, or in another room, can help to remove some of the physical tendencies and scrolling. 

I’m still working through my own process and will follow-up with details. If you have a method that works for you, I’d love to hear it. Just don’t expect a reply right away — after all, I’m trying to focus. 

📚 Reading

Uber’s response to California Assembly Bill 5 states that drivers are exempt as employees because their work is “outside of the usual course of business.” Link.

Denmark has an appointed ambassador to interface with American technology companies. Link.

An insightful post on the implications of face recognition from Ben Evans. Link.

The radius of the proton has been measured with unprecedented accuracy. The new result from a team of physicists in Toronto has debunked a controversial measurement that has been outstanding in the sub-atomic community for nearly a decade. Link.

The orbital structure of the 2S and 2P states of hydrogen.

Apple’s new iPhone contains a chip that enables location and tracking at living-room scale. Mostly glossed over during the recent special event, this technology could lead to applications in the AR/VR space. At the very least, you won’t lost your AirPods in the couch again. Link.

College admissions offices are in a difficult spot. Growing costs are driving acceptance rates of students with sub-par academic achievement, but strong financial backgrounds to balance out the cost of financial aid packages. Link.

VC Twitter is a tight circle with unspoken rules. An investor learned this the hard way after criticizing a failed ed-tech startup. Within VC circles, Twitter is used as a way to promote “thought leadership” and generate leads. This tendency, combined with Twitter’s quote-tweet functionality, leads to an echo chamber and the occasional Twitter-mob. Link.

Astronomers have found water vapor in the atmosphere of an Earth-like exoplanet. Link.

📺 Videos

Apple’s keynote presentation featured updates to the iPhone product line, the Watch, and a summary of their growing services package. Link.

Stripe hosted a public keynote timed with the rollout of two new services aimed at supplying capital to small businesses. Link.

💎 Quote Of The Week

“Email is a wonderful thing for people whose role in life is to be on top of things. But not for me; my role is to be on the bottom of things.”

Don Knuth


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