All the streams from the social web have created a flood of information. With this influx of life and data streams comes the desire to stay on top of it all. But this is a bad idea, according to Clifford Nass whom Om interviewed on the topic.

All the streams from the social web have created a flood of information over the past few years. With this influx of life and data streams comes the desire to stay on top of it all. And for many people, that means multi-tasking. Checking email while Tweetdeck keeps up with Twitter, while we pop over to Facebook to look at our friends’ latest photos.

It’s intuitive to think that handling so many tasks at once makes us better at handling many tasks. But that’s wrong, according to Stanford professor Clifford Nass. According to Nass, the more you multi-task, the worse you get at it, and it adversely impacts your ability to do all kinds of things a brain should do (like, you know, think). He’s just written a book called The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, which explores how as computers have become more human-like, we as users have started treating them as such. Additionally, Nass writes, we can study how people interact with computers to see how we’ll act with each other.

Nass stopped by GigaOM HQ last week and told us about some of the findings from his research like:

  • What computers and T-shirts can teach us about team building.
  • How his team got people to actually like Microsoft’s Clippy (I know! Impossible, right?).
  • The dangers of multi-tasking and what is the optimal method for modern day workers.

Watch the video and see if you could adopt Nass’ unit-tasking office universe. Have a better idea? Leave us your thoughts in the comments.

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  1. This video failed :)
    It distracted me from my other streams, for less than 15min…
    But seriously good stuff. I already started to isolate myself for some period of time during the day to get things done. It works incredibly well (I guess I forgot how well it was before).

    1. Ha! Thanks for watching. Hope it helps!

  2. This is the best thing I saw all day! Thanks for publishing this interview.

  3. If he means by multitasking the quick succession of unrelated tasks. I agree, if he means parallel processing, I disagree. The brain is more advanced at parallel processing than our attempts at multiprocessing make it look like.

    What happens if we loose our sense of touch? We fall down(no gravity info), and our limps move rather uncontrolled. Parallel processing of related data, parallel feedback loops(which stopped working in this case). This is based on published Neurology(101) papers(can’t find a link right now).

    So instead of starting/stopping unrelated work, we should build apps which correlate the stream instead of interrupting us. One thing is for sure it (data) will get more and filtering in means of stopping/starting might just not work.

    1. That’s an interesting add-on. Now the trick is just building that app which can correctly identify and group those similar tasks together. Though given how much people griped about Goog’s priority inbox, this is probably a tough nut to crack.

      1. Why can we learn “all” before we can count or have any concept of numbers(with a really slow immature brain, which just has mastered to learn from negative feedback)? Why are there one-two-many cultures(people without “any” numerical concept past three)?

        Sounds to me like our applied math is wrong. Google just wants to make things fast, not smarter. No surprise here, it’s actually not that hard. You just have to look beyond the Valley echo chamber.

        BTW: I use “all” always as an demonstration since it can be shown easily as a simple parallel structure, which we can learn early on and teach a machine first. Even with a parallel addressing scheme … that gives people something to think about. Specially since it’s based on BAC (Backpropagation Activated Calcium) and doubles as working memory. OK, at some point a 100t problem has to get complex.

  4. Great interview! This very closely resembles the GTD Method. I wonder if they’re related at all?
    I’d be very interested in more interviews like this from you chris. You seemed to ask some great questions.

    Thanks for the post! I’ve shared it with many friends.


  5. So basically, TV rots your brain… unless you do nothing else! Sounds like a plan to me! :-D Seriously though, it seems like I have always known these things about attention. I can’t even watch TV with someone else in the room. I get really serious about my shows and hunker down in my blankets with my finger on the rewind button so I don’t miss a word. I am the same way about conversations with people, and even writing this post. If you have my attention, you have it completely and I don’t want to be interrupted. That’s what voice mail is for! Next time, someone cuts me off to answer a text, I think I’m going to look them in the eye, pick up my phone and call them. I’ve even had people forget they were messaging with me because they were chatting with someone else. What a way to say you’re important, hunh?

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  7. But what does “bad for the brain” mean? He keeps saying it, but what specifically happens?

    1. It’s complicated. For a good start. Read
      The short version, it affects plasticity(learning).

      But if you want to work in that field don’t be discouraged. Since the real question is not if we reach anything close to singularity. The question is do we need to build an artificial Hummingbird to build a flying machine? Or do we need to understand the equation of lift? One leads us to a super efficient flying machine, we are not capable of replicating, the other leads us to Kitty Hawk. And some fly around in hot air balloons (boolean system), they just have the illusion of being able to fly like a bird.

  8. I agree about the concerns on negative impact of multi-tasking and multiple information flows to our brain in terms of concentration, memory and productivity.

    A good solution to this problem was already defined in 1992. The principles are pretty the same as those described in the video.

    Have a look at the Pomodoro Technique: http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/

    You can find even a app for your Mac to run pomodoro…

    – Sergio

  9. “Multitasking tends to increase until collapse.” – Fleming’s Law

  10. Great — thanks!

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