Everyone talks about the evils of multitasking, and everyone still does it. I'm becoming convinced, though, that the problem isn't multitasking in and of itself; it's the massive ingestion of data that is putting a strain on our digestive systems.
All of this is represented neatly by browser tabs. Think about it: each one represents a window on a full set of data, whether it be a news site, a blog post, an online store, an animated gif, a social media site, or a white paper. You can switch between them instantaneously, and your brain has to make a context switch and encompass the entirety of whatever you're doing with that tab.
Remember when you read just one book at a time? (Okay, maybe two or three, but they were scattered around the house, and you put one down before you picked up the other one.) You didn't have the sheer speed and volume of context switching that we have today just on our computer screens alone.
And that's not counting the additional inputs represented by phones, music, TV, and conversations. Each texting thread is a conversation, an interaction with another person. Texting and email allow you to conduct conversations with a potentially large number of people at nearly the same time, and with each one, you need to remember what has just gone before, and what you were planning to say next.
Conferences just kick up the stress even more for me. In half-hour chunks, I meet anywhere from one to five people, and learn their names, titles, affiliations and roles. I also hear all about what they're working on full-time, and I have to digest as much of it as I can in that 30-minute span. Once they leave, I have to flush the cache and start over again with the next group of people. This can go on all day, for several days: in a typical RSA conference day this week, I gave a talk, met several people beforehand and afterwards, and went through nine or ten 30-minute meetings, followed by group socializing in the evening. I have no idea how many people I interacted with in total, nor can I remember most of them or our conversations, unless I got their business cards or took notes.
Contrast this with the way the previous generations grew up. A person might meet two or three new people in a day if they were busy. More likely, they'd interact with several people they already knew in an office, or classroom; they might go home and have a phone conversation with one or two people. They'd read a book or a magazine, or they'd watch a TV program (this was before DVRs, so whatever was on is what you'd watch, until it was done). Pretty much one at a time, with some amount of overlap, but nowhere near the broadband mode we function in today. And if you grew up in an isolated area, you might not talk to anyone else on a regular basis unless you lived with them. Some people didn't read more than one or two books in a year, if they read them at all.
The most challenging multitasking I did in my youth was waiting tables, where you only needed to remember the status of six tables at any given time (during a rush, getting up to nine tables was really pushing it). But at least I didn't have to remember more than who was waiting for their cheeseburger, and I could forget everything about the customers as soon as they left the restaurant.
So sometimes I need to go on a data diet. I need to dial back to the amount of inputs that my parents and their parents had. That means putting down the computer, putting down the phone, and doing something for a sustained period of time that doesn't involve reading, and that requires direct focus. (Cooking is good for this, because if you don't pay attention, you're likely to get hurt or at least burn the food.)
Think of it as Paleo for the Brain. I need to consume data the good old-fashioned way, without artificial inflation or modification: having one input going on at a time, where you chew your data thoroughly before you swallow.
If you are feeling frazzled and want to try this, I suggest starting with a Data Cleanse. Stop reading. Don't read anything. Don't talk to anybody. Don't listen to music or watch TV. Just sit in a room without doing anything more complicated than, say, folding laundry. It can be excruciating if you're not used to it; you miss the constant streams of inputs, and your brain doesn't know how to generate its own at the same rate. But eventually your mind will spin down, and you'll go back to having one clear, comprehensible thought at a time that will last for more than a few seconds.
Then you can work your way back into connectivity. Watch one movie -- all the way through, beginning to end (and without the commentary track turned on). Write a long letter or blog post. (See what I did there?) Call someone up on the phone (how quaint!) and talk to them for at least fifteen minutes. Draw a picture. Go for a slow walk. Be conscious of what you're taking in, and throttle the rate. Make sure to take data breaks where you're not interacting with anything or anyone in a way that involves language.
Don't get me wrong: the Internet is a nifty place. But sometimes it feels as if I've been feeding my brain a bunch of pork rinds and ice cream. In order to have higher quality thoughts, I need to have fewer of them, and that means taking in less fuel for the fire.