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Mastering the high-tech tools that help us

Experts see a rising pushback against digital distraction.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 2, 2008

Jacob Turcottte


Los Angeles

Multitasking has long been a badge of honor for the digitally well-armed, a term equating high personal productivity with computerlike efficiency.

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But also widely discussed in recent years has been the notion that – as with computers, so with people – there is a price to pay for distributing attention too widely across tasks. What seems like a hyperproductive approach to work can actually be counterproductive.

Computer scientists have a word for the phenomenon: thrashing. That's when a computer is asked to do so many background tasks at once that its hard drive is overworked. That can paralyze its ability to do the important tasks a user requires.

As for humans, continuously communicating, or reeling in images and data, can dramatically slow our processing abilities as well, say experts in human behavior.

Getting a handle on digital distractions has far-reaching ramifications, says David Wertheimer, executive director of the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California. He says that such intense distractions are leading the American workforce down a road of deepening ineffectiveness.

"I see the American worker becoming less and less productive," says Mr. Wertheimer. "As workplaces get flooded with digital demands, such as constant e-mails and nonstop information, we are in danger of becoming a third-world-style economy, where much movement takes place but little actual effective work is being done."

After all, both computers and humans really only process one thing at a time, says futurist Simeon Spearman. The machines do this so quickly, in parallel processes, that they appear to be multitasking. But they are able to process far more information than humans – and are more capable with each jump in processor speed.

"When you see the demands we put on computers these days and how much they can process, you begin to understand just how much we're being hit by all the time," adds Mr. Spearman.

Laptops, cellphones, and an array of other powerful hand-helds put humans in the teeth of a high-tech maelstrom. This requires humans to become more sophisticated in their daily strategies if they are going to "master their digital environment," says David Allen, the author and productivity guru.

A groundswell of solutions to combat human thrashing has been under way, from individuals embracing digital-free days to broader adoption of the highly sophisticated, now-iconic "Getting Things Done," a work-life management system created by Mr. Allen in 2001 and now commonly known as GTD.

GTD encourages users to organize vast amounts of personal information, then get it stored and off their minds except when they deal with it directly. The idea is that this frees them to be more productive. It organizes tasks by context and urgency, rather than by time and day as old-fashioned systems have done.