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Multithreading & The Complexity of Modern Experience
Experience isn't what it used to be.
In Episode 5 of The Beyond Productivity series, we discussed how technology is changing our experience. In that conversation, I used the word multithreading rather than multitasking, since I wasn't necessarily thinking about what we do with our experience, but rather, how we acquire information. I didn't go into depth there, but I've been thinking more about it recently.
Multithreading is a term used in computer science to refer to the ability of computers to process multiple sources of input at once. It's also a useful way to think about how we acquire and process information, especially as the sources of input become increasing more complex. But let's start from the beginning...
Humans used to acquire information from two sources early in our social development, and during those times, we had, roughly, two outlets for creation: we could create physical stuff, or we could create conversations. That model looks something like this:
The circle in the middle is our brains - the nexus of our experiences and thoughts. I'm not going to discuss what goes on inside there today, since the point is the information we're getting and how we're outputting that information. On the left side, pointing towards the circle, are experience streams; on the right are the creation streams.
That was then. This is now:
As I said, experience isn't what it used to be.
Spinning in Circles
The problem of multithreading can be particularly frustrating for creative people, because often times, we not only have to worry about the information we're acquiring, but also the things we're creating. It really is that overwhelming, as we're trying to figure out how to filter all of the information, what to create from that information, and what creation stream to send our creations down. That's a lot to process at once.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how our three main tasks are to create, connect, and consume. The point of that post was to think about ways in which we can focus on what we're trying to do rather than trying to do to many things at once, since it's easy to spin around and around and still not really get anything done.
There's a lot we can do to simplify things. For instance, when we focus solely on creating, our experience/creative threads look like this:
The multiple arrows here still illustrate the point that many people still try to create multiple things simultaneously. That is, in the middle of writing, a though occurs to them, and they'll jump on Twitter to share that thought (guilty!). The ideal case is when we focus solely on creating one thing at a time.
Note that focusing on creating shuts down the experience streams coming in. While it's very difficult to increase our mental capacity in any given moment, increasing the amount of available mental capacity is as simple as minimizing the other things that are tugging at our minds. This trend carries to the next two models, as well.
When we focus on consuming, it looks like this:
As with creating, the ideal case is when we're focusing on one source at a time. For what it's worth, this is one of the reason why so many people get more from reading physical books as opposed to blogs: when most people read books, they shut down a lot of the sources that would otherwise distract them. Of course, the other reason is that books give authors the chance to go into more depth, and we readers give the author more time to develop her ideas.
Connecting is a bit different, as it's a two way process. It looks like this:
Connecting with people is a multidirectional activity. We're sharing experiences, emotions, and information back and forth, and this transactional dimension is what makes real-time discussions with people both so enjoyable and so fruitful. The sum is indeed greater than the parts.
One Thing At A Time
Despite what we may think, there's only so much that we can process and create at once. Each additional input that reaches the level of our awareness (and some that don't) diminishes the amount of available focus, and each additional output that we simultaneously try to work on at once decreases the total pool of concentration that we have available. The most common results that we see from having too much coming in and/or too much going out is wheel-spinning and lower quality work.
We know this at one level, but at another level, it's incredibly hard to train yourself to focus in a society so full of distractions. When Angela and I visit our families, one of the hardest things for us to do is to accept that spending time with people means either yelling over the TV or talking during the commercials. Our strategies for interactions, though, aren't idiosyncratic; since we all accept the "normalness" of interacting with people over distractions, we each downshift our interactions such that they can be multithreadable - with the result that when we talk, we really don't talk. We share sound bites that can compete with the distractions. It's really no wonder that so many people are drama-addicts in our culture, since drama is immediately more interesting than the "mundane" awesomeness that happens in our lives.
The real problem here is that, while the complexity of our experience and creation streams have increased significantly due to technological and social changes, our ability to process multiple inputs and outputs hasn't been able to keep up. At the same time, many of us aren't really aware of what all we're trying to process, and when we are, we may not have the self-discipline to shut things down. But we don't have to be victims of our environment.
What I'm asking you to do is to be cognizant of all the different experience/creation streams you're juggling at once and to consider shutting some of them down for a few days. Turn off the TV when you're talking to people. Shutdown Twitter and your email client when you're creating. When you read, just read.
This may be awkward at first precisely because you'll be more aware of those things you are experiencing and you'll probably be able to create or consume at a much higher level than you're used to. You'll be more in tune with nonverbal communication and verbal nuances of the people you're connecting with.
In short, you'll be experiencing what it's like when you aren't multithreading experiences. And you may find that you like it.