Staying Relevant

On November 2 of this year, Clifford Nass, Stanford Professor who studied bigstock-Young-Man-Multitasking-On-Phon-38520406the truth of our modern obsession with multi-tasking, died of a heart attack at age 55.  A mathematician originally, he redirected his focus to communication; namely, how humans interact with computers. Here he found a deep vein of study.

What fascinated Nass in the last decade were those people who seemed like a new form of super-connected, super-efficient people: multi-taskers. Nass thought that perhaps they were pointing toward an evolutionary step in which humans could juggle multiple inputs from multiple media with advanced cognitive and memory skills. He thought this especially true of young people. So, like any good researcher, he decided to study it. He expected to learn of a new wave in human intellectual skill.

He found the exact opposite.

Not only are humans terrible multi-taskers, we delude ourselves into thinking we are actually good at it. It turns out that not only can we not juggle scores of inputs with ease, over time we lose our ability to factor out irrelevant information to focus on that which is truly relevant.

I had to check myself on that one. I thought of the times I get easily distracted by the rush of news articles, ads and “Only One Day Left” emails before me on every device I own, probably curated by some algorithm that monitors my every keystroke. I would have to confess that about 30% of them are related to what I am looking for and the rest are online eye candy. But they look so darn tasty that I find it hard to walk by. My interest in the irrelevant is, I am certain, of relevant interest to the PR agencies, sponsors and companies behind the machine.

So I read about Nass’ life and passing with great interest for what he discovered holds the key to staying in relevance.

This is a hard thing to do. Nass told attendees at a 2012 social sciences summit sponsored by Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in Behavioral Science that the multi-tasking life clearly hurts the brain. And he noted that companies often create policies that require employees to multi-task to succeed – a problem he believed was an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) issue, equal to the unsafe work environments of the past.

The situation will not change anytime soon. Modern life is technology-infused. We can be reached through our myriad of devices anytime and with a level of priority that rarely distinguishes between deal-with-now vs. deal-with-later. Accompanying this undifferentiated contact is the expectation, subtle or direct, that once we get the message we will respond within a few hours. This becomes another push toward the multi-tasking life, another push toward the impacts Nass outlined.

The question becomes “How does one stay in relevance?”

Three characteristics of a purposeful practice answer this dilemma on an individual level:

  1. The mind of an editor – a skilled editor cuts away what is not needed and sharpens what is required.
  2. The focus of an athlete – a true athlete is clear about what will bring him to his goal and keeps that clarity in front of him.
  3. The patience of a teacher – a great teacher understands that knowledge sometimes appears in the midst of noise and that appearance cannot be forced.

It can feel like a struggle to quiet the ever-connected world long enough to tap into deep productivity and creativity. It can seem as if one is acting too “old school” and inefficient by putting these multi-tasking tools down every once in a while. Such measured refutation of brain-splitting life will, paradoxically, make one more connected. If you live your life constantly bouncing from one thing to the next, you are the opposite of being in the middle of everything. You have pushed yourself to the sideline with your eyes glued to a screen.










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