As information professionals we work with technology all the time. It has built-in benefits and pitfalls. When we ignore or harness the addictive nature of technology, when we maintain our focus and minimize distractions, we increase our productivity. That’s quite a claim, but we all know it’s true. We also know that multitasking isn’t a real skill, it’s a concentration breaker.
We’ve all had this happen: We’re focused on a research project or a complex search, whether we’re using online resources or paper documents. We’ve seen or touched a dozen or so articles, citations, and facts, and are juggling them in our heads. Suddenly someone stops to chat, the phone rings, or a text message comes through, and that’s it, our concentration is broken. We must refresh our search and review the pertinent facts—in a sense, we have to start all over again. It’s even worse when we’ve distracted ourselves, with just one peek at email or the news while we’re writing a tightly focused memo or report on a complex project. That elusive thread is gone and we have to find it again and that takes time, concentration, and focus.
This is the curse of today’s multitasking culture, where our attention is sliced and diced, and we are distracted all the time. We lose our ability to focus.
The myth of multitasking
It won’t surprise you to learn that multitasking isn’t possible. If you embrace multitasking, you are really practicing serial monotasking. What’s that you ask? If monotasking is doing one thing at a time, serial monotasking is doing a bit of some task, then another task, and another, in a serial manner with no break in between.
Multitasking is fragmenting your time, jumping from task to task while looking for the next one. Jumping or shifting from phone to email to research and back again without pause. It means you are not concentrating on any one thing long term. In the end, you might accomplish your task but it will take you a lot longer because you’ve distracted yourself over and over again. If you haven’t distracted yourself from your mission, you’ve broken your concentration into tiny fragments.
Is research and reference multitasking?
As Information Professionals, we spend much of our time answering reference questions. That involves doing research, looking up information, and providing suggestions on where to look for answers. In a very busy reference department, you might answer different and diverse questions within minutes of one another. The shift from question to question sounds like multitasking but it isn’t. Reference entails focusing on one question at a time without getting distracted. Reference involves asking questions, selecting appropriate resources, and making recommendations for researchers or inquirers to follow. Then you shift your attention to the next question and perform the next task, having completed, and forgotten, the previous query.
Of course, sometimes you get to do the research yourself and that’s where focus or monotasking is really important. Research means following the clues and gathering information and data for your client. While you may follow a few tangents, it’s important to stay on task. Getting distracted by extraneous data decreases your productivity and output. Cal Newport, the current guru of “digital minimalism,” defines multi-tasking as ‘context switching’, which dramatically reduces your performance.1
In an analog research environment, multitasking or distraction was minimal and usually involved putting an interesting but irrelevant item aside for further perusal. It was and is easier to stay focused on the question, with less distraction caused by tangential information and resources.
In a digital research environment, multitasking or fragmented focus happens when you bounce between online resources and become distracted by ads, social media, or even your email. It may be a while before you realize that you’ve dropped the threads of your research. Monotasking entails staying focused— turning off those distractions until the project or reference query is completed and responses are sent to the user.
Tips for Embracing Focus, Increasing Productivity
How do we embrace focus and attention to projects? The simplest method is to turn off all the distracting technology: social media, email, notifications, and to some extent text messaging and phone calls. In other words, schedule monotasking and focus time.
Schedule blocks of uninterrupted time to work on the project. Schedule time when you aren’t switching focus, when nothing at all distracts you, not your phone, computer, email, or even colleagues. Get into that zone where you are so focused you resent being interrupted. The dedicated blocks don’t have to be long. Start with ten to fifteen-minute increments, then build up to an hour.
When working on a bigger project, break it into small, accomplishable bits. Embrace small amounts of down time. Rather than checking your email for ten minutes or complaining about why you can’t work on a project, focus. Work on that small doable piece of research. Spend that 10 ‘empty’ minute block writing, editing, checking facts, and the like. Before you know it, you’ll accomplish a piece of the project or compile sources for a research query.2
What do the most productive, focused, information professionals do? They schedule daily time to be distracted, to check social media, and clean out unwanted email. Schedule 15 minutes before you start work, 15 minutes of your lunch hour. Set a timer and then shut off the distracting digital technology.
Other ways to stay focused, increase productivity and decrease your urge to multitask include:
- Taking some time to brainstorm with colleagues
- Walking around the block
- Going to the water fountain or coffee pot, or
- Tromping up and down the stairs
Take time to refresh your brain and your body and you’ll be able to focus again and complete tasks without distraction.
Summing it up
Multitasking means you are switching focus over and over again. Multitasking is fragmenting your attention into tiny bits. Fragmentation of attention decreases productivity and increases the chance for missing information and presenting a rushed work product.
Staying focused is hard work. It takes discipline and requires decreasing fragmented attention while eliminating unnecessary distractions, especially from digital technologies.
Embracing focus increases productivity. Concentrating on reference and research projects without distraction improves the quality of work products, increases efficient use of time and resources, and decreases the time spent on information requests.
This is not a new topic, which means there are a number of books and articles on the subject of multitasking, monotasking, deep work, digital minimalism, and deep reading, to name a few. The most current book on the topic is by Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (NY: Portfolio, a division of Penguin Random House, 2019).
Other works you might explore include:
- Tim Herrera, “How to Actually, Truly Focus and What You’re Doing – Tired: Shallow work. Wired: Deep work” Smarter Living newsletter, New York Times digital edition (Jan 14, 2019)
- David M. Levy, Mindful Tech: How to Bring Balance to Our Digital Lives (Stamford, CT: Yale University Press, 2016),
- Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2016),
- Neal Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (NY: Vintage Press, 1993) and,
- Postman’s classic study Amusing Ourselves to Death (NY: Viking, 1985)
My next post on Librarians and Technology will continue to look at focusing our attention, covering Active Listening and Monotasking.
- 1 Cal Newport, Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World (NY: Portfolio, a division of Penguin Random House, 2019)
- 2 Thanks to Jeanne Smith, Director of the Writing Commons at Kent State University for this invaluable advice for time management and focus.