Avoiding Context Switching
Cal Newport continues to hound us that the human mind is not multi-threaded. We are no good at switching contexts or multi-tasking, even if recent computing technology is good at these things.
The modern world has encouraged such multi-tasking. Telegraphs, telephones, texting, mobile are all devices that may demand we switch contexts. Perhaps early forms of the technology still had mono-tasking employees, such as the telegraph operator or the secretary who answered the phone. Their sole job was to deal with the inputs and outputs. At some point, though, secretaries were to type as they dealt with the phone, and then the phone just rang directly to the person whose job was doing other things besides answering the phone. Pretty soon we were forced to jump between various tracks, and interruptions could demand our attention.
Part of the problem with these interruptions is that they are without faces. As Newport argues in Digital Minimalism, we are built for complex interactions like facial expression, body posture, vocal tone, and so on. It’s harder to turn someone down face to face, and it’s harder to interrupt someone face to face. But technology enables a fast interruption: can you do this? Can you respond to this person? We hate to interrupt someone who is busy, but if I can’t see that you’re busy then it doesn’t feel like an interruption anymore.
Some apps are self-interrupting. To write an email you have to open the email app and see your inbox. To send a text you end up seeing your other texts and the one you forgot to respond to yesterday.
Some apps are more distraction free. Newport likes Workflowy because it presents you with a blank canvas for a to-do list. Drafts starts with a blank sheet. These apps are more like a blank piece of paper; they are inviting and non-distracting. Instead of seeing the last thing you did, or something you didn’t finish, you are invited to put in that space whatever was on your mind in the first place. (It’s a bit like Monty Python’s “Novel Writing” sketch where Thomas Hardy writes his new novel in front of an adoring crowd.)
Perhaps as technology grows smarter and more context aware it will get better at not interrupting us. If I want to check my to-do list then I want to see everything; if I want to add something to that same list while I’m reading, writing, or whatever, then I don’t want to see my whole list and get sidetracked and hijacked. If I’m on the phone then I don’t want a text message to pop up (unless it says BUILDING ON FIRE EVACUATE NOW, or something to that effect). Computers are great as external brains, but not as external distraction devices.