Thoughts on 'Thinking tasks'

Oogiem

Registered
Lots of stuff here and not much time to really delve into it but here are a few random thoughts.

The thing I object to about deep work is the implication that that is the only useful work to be done. That all else or any quick refocusing is bad. There has been a lot in this thread about what is important work. I maintain that it is all important at some level and things that take more mental power or more time or a deeper focus are not necessarily more important than things that are less taxing.

The thing I object to about "multitasking" which is in fact not really possible, only quick refocusing, but then that's the biologist in me, is that it can fragment your thoughts and make it difficult to complete tasks.

The things I see GTD as helping in this regard is that:
  1. GTD provides structure for handling interruptions with a minimum of mental or physical effort.
  2. The GTD method delays processing how to deal with those interruptions until a time of your choosing. (I'm thinking of the ideas and inbox capture and yes, even the people interruptions can be "processed" by saying wait a bit.
  3. GTD supports focus on tasks when it is appropriate but does not say that such tasks are more important then other "lesser" or small tasks that have your attention. The importance of a task in the GTD system is more a function of how much you are thinking about it.
I would also agree that learning how to both do concentrated focusing on a single project or action or problem and quick refocusing to a new task are skills that everyone should learn. I also believe that because our current society puts a premium on handling interruptions and quick refocusing that that is a critical skill that should be taught and should be practiced. For most people they cannot get away from the need to handle quick refocusing so I don't see a problem in emphasizing how to do that effectively.
 

Oogiem

Registered
When you actually sit down to implement the solution to a sticky programming problem, wouldn't it hurt at least a little if you were interrupted at least every thirteen minutes, and you were absolutely required to address the interruption for a few minutes, engaging your mind fully with the interruption, before you could return to the programming? I don't remember, offhand, how you felt about the "change tasks every seven minutes" suggestion, which I see as closely related......
Re the deep work, I'm not seeing that as more important; I'm seeing it as not unimportant, and as work that requires undistracted focus. So my definition is circular--work that requires undistracted focus, requires undistracted focus. And some such work does exist, and some such work has value.
I don't disagree that it can be extremely valuable to have uninterrupted time to focus on specific tasks. Implementation of code is one really good example, extracting a stuck lamb during a difficult birth is another. In the first case it actually can be interrupted, in the second it's a much higher threshold before I can stop what I am doing to do something else. In the latter the choice would be 2 ewes each with significant birthing problems simultaneously. I'd have to triage, either who I can fix quickly or who has higher value to the flock would get my attention first.

I think there is a circular argument here that is based on differing attitudes towards the variety of tasks that everyone must do. See my previous comment for some thoughts.
 

Gardener

Registered
I also believe that because our current society puts a premium on handling interruptions and quick refocusing that that is a critical skill that should be taught and should be practiced. For most people they cannot get away from the need to handle quick refocusing so I don't see a problem in emphasizing how to do that effectively.
One issue with that is the studies that show that people who do more multitasking in everyday life are worse at multitasking--that is, are worse at filtering out the competing distractions when they try to perform on a task.

I haven't seen anyone state a firm opinion on whether that's cause and effect or not. That is, whether forming the habit of multitasking makes you worse at establishing focus, or whether people who have trouble establishing focus tend to multitask a lot as a result, because their focus is dragged around and they're unable to resist. Or whether both are a result of some other factor.

But whichever way it goes, it seems to make it clear that successfully shifting focus is not a skill that can be developed merely by frequent everyday practice. Frequent practice through ordinary everyday attention shifts may make the ability to focus worse, or it may be neutral, but it doesn't help.

Also, the studies make it clear that people who are bad at multitasking absolutely do not know that they're bad at multitaking. They think they're good.

And another issue is that multitasking makes you FEEL good, at least for a while. There's a dopamine thing. (A hurried Google leads me to Psychology Today: "Multitaskers basically get addicted to this dopamine rush which leads them to believe they are being effective when in fact they're not.")

So my view is still that weeding out the need to multitask as much as possible, and eliminating as many distractions as possible, is the best plan. I don't see the situation as "You're going to encounter germs, so just stop cleaning." I see it as, "Clean up as many of the germs is as reasonable, and for the rest, work on your immune system."

What's the immune system in this metaphor? I'll have to think about that. But in my book, it's not celebrating or embracing multitasking/distractions.

And by "distractions" I'm not demanding sensory deprivation. :) Playing your coffeehouse sound track is fine. Actually operating the espresso machine while writing code is not. Thinking about a cognition-heavy project while doing a low-thought task is fine. Giving that cognition-heavy project NOTHING BUT time that is shared with other tasks is not.
 

Longstreet

Professor of microbiology and infectious diseases
On the issue of the impact on "task-switching", not multitasking, which is impossible with the human brain, please see this research study. The "residue" left on one's mind from rapid re-focusing is much more than one one would think. Hence, the idea of having protected time to focus.
 

Attachments

Longstreet

Professor of microbiology and infectious diseases
Lots of stuff here and not much time to really delve into it but here are a few random thoughts.

The thing I object to about deep work is the implication that that is the only useful work to be done. That all else or any quick refocusing is bad. There has been a lot in this thread about what is important work. I maintain that it is all important at some level and things that take more mental power or more time or a deeper focus are not necessarily more important than things that are less taxing.

The thing I object to about "multitasking" which is in fact not really possible, only quick refocusing, but then that's the biologist in me, is that it can fragment your thoughts and make it difficult to complete tasks.

The things I see GTD as helping in this regard is that:
  1. GTD provides structure for handling interruptions with a minimum of mental or physical effort.
  2. The GTD method delays processing how to deal with those interruptions until a time of your choosing. (I'm thinking of the ideas and inbox capture and yes, even the people interruptions can be "processed" by saying wait a bit.
  3. GTD supports focus on tasks when it is appropriate but does not say that such tasks are more important then other "lesser" or small tasks that have your attention. The importance of a task in the GTD system is more a function of how much you are thinking about it.
I would also agree that learning how to both do concentrated focusing on a single project or action or problem and quick refocusing to a new task are skills that everyone should learn. I also believe that because our current society puts a premium on handling interruptions and quick refocusing that that is a critical skill that should be taught and should be practiced. For most people they cannot get away from the need to handle quick refocusing so I don't see a problem in emphasizing how to do that effectively.
This is excellent, Oogiem, and I agree mostly. But there is growing research on the impact of "task residue" from rapid refocusing from one task to another. I have attached one such study here.
 

Attachments

mcogilvie

Registered
This is excellent, Oogiem, and I agree mostly. But there is growing research on the impact of "task residue" from rapid refocusing from one task to another. I have attached one such study here.
Another interesting confluence of GTD and academic research is the issue of decision fatigue. I understand the at least one study failed to replicate the original findings. I confess I don't have much confidence in any of these studies, and generally go with experience, agreeing with the studies that agree with me. Very scientific, right? It's confirmation bias.
 

Longstreet

Professor of microbiology and infectious diseases
Another interesting confluence of GTD and academic research is the issue of decision fatigue. I understand the at least one study failed to replicate the original findings. I confess I don't have much confidence in any of these studies, and generally go with experience, agreeing with the studies that agree with me. Very scientific, right? It's confirmation bias.
That is too funny! I know you are joking, my dear colleague...otherwise, I would worry a lot about your open mindedness as a professor and researcher. :D
 

Gameboy70

Registered
This is excellent, Oogiem, and I agree mostly. But there is growing research on the impact of "task residue" from rapid refocusing from one task to another. I have attached one such study here.
Task residue is a valid concern, but less so for diligent GTD practitioners who regularly close their open loops. If the successful outcome and the next actions are clear, there should be no residue.

I find that if I'm still preoccupied with a task I've ostensibly completed, there's either a next action I still need to capture or a project that needs to be redefined—sometimes by adding a more concrete subproject, sometimes by adding a larger outcome, sometimes by simply rewording the project for added clarity.
 

Longstreet

Professor of microbiology and infectious diseases
Task residue is a valid concern, but less so for diligent GTD practitioners who regularly close their open loops. If the successful outcome and the next actions are clear, there should be no residue.

I find that if I'm still preoccupied with a task I've ostensibly completed, there's either a next action I still need to capture or a project that needs to be redefined—sometimes by adding a more concrete subproject, sometimes by adding a larger outcome, sometimes by simply rewording the project for added clarity.
I agree!
 
Top