In Praise of Doing One Thing At A Time



Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When Thomas Jefferson sat down to draft the Declaration of Independence, he probably wasn’t contemplating the basic principles of cognitive psychology. Jefferson, a self-professed Epicurean, was clarifying that the role of government was not only to secure the lives and liberties of its citizens. Yet he ordered the three unalienable rights to fit our cognitive processes. It’s much easier to hold in memory a short phrase (life) while we’re reading a long and incomplete phrase that its part of (liberty, and the pursuit of happiness).

The light-before-heavy rule has guided writers for millennia. It is a function of working memory, a system in the brain that allows us to hold information in the mind. Working memory is analogous to a computer’s RAM with an exception. A computer can simultaneously stream videos, play music, and keep a few tabs open. Working memory, by contrast, is barely able to hold more than seven or eight pieces of data—a mental speed limit reflected in the length of phone numbers around the world.

The interesting part of working memory is what happens when it’s overrun. In one well-known experiment, Baba Shiv at Stanford found that participants instructed to memorize a seven digit number were more likely to select a piece of chocolate cake while participants who memorized a two digit number tended to pick a healthier option—fruit salad. (Shiv told participants that the food was there as a “thank you for participating.”)

What goes for dietary decisions goes for most decisions. When there is a load on working memory, judgment deteriorates.

In an era of multi-tasking, it’s concerning to think about how many poor decisions result not from a lack of intelligence but information overload. Working memory is invisible, so it’s hard to see what happens when we stuff it with information. It’s like blindly adding more and more cars to a freeway that’s already congested.

The best strategy to unclog working memory is simple: do one thing at a time. The most productive people are not master multi-taskers; they carve out time to turn their phones off and ignore email. In The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel Levitin writes about research on “highly successful persons,” eminent CEOs, film producers, artists, investors—anyone whose is responsible for managing a lot of people. Most of them employ “productivity hours.”

The benefit of productivity hours is not a break from multitasking but the opportunity to multitask. Levitin cites research from Glenn Wilson of Gresham College, London, who found that IQ plummets by 10 points when email interrupts a task that we’re focused on. Switching attention from one activity to another—if only for a split-second—is costly. To paraphrase Levitin, truly paying attention means not paying attention to anything else.

To many, the idea of a productivity hour is appealing but impossible. The culprit of information overload isn’t information itself but office culture. Most knowledge workers are expected to “wear multiple hats,” respond to email promptly, and have good ideas for dozens of disparate tasks. In some cases, the physical layout of an office makes solitude impossible. In others, the nature of the work requires an employee to be immediately accessible during most hours of the day.

A handful of companies encourage periods of seclusion, but these companies (Google, Safeway) are the minority. Most businesses still believe that an inability to multitask is a reflection of poor work ethic or below average intelligence when it is a rudimentary feature of the brain. The ability to consciously focus on one thing at a time—to contemplate it, to flip it over, to see it from different angles—is an evolutionary marvel not to be abused.

In my experience, the problem is not just taxing office culture or onerous managers. Most individuals think multitasking is a laudable skill despite the overwhelming evidence showing that it is cognitively impossible and, when you think about the statistics of driving while texting, sometimes fatal. Until we update our understanding of our mental hardware—until we take seriously how information affects working memory—we’ll remain cognitively handicapped.

I learned about the light-before-heavy rule in Steven Pinker’s A Sense of Style: The Thinking’s Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. As I read a few other examples (my favorite was Bruce Springsteen’s album The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle) I noticed that the book hovers around an idea central to The Organized Mind. The brain is an imperfect computer with finite resources, and we must treat it as such.

Good writers are fun to read because they conform to our limited bandwidth. Their primarily objective is communication, but they keep enough RAM available so readers can truly absorb, imagine, and contemplate what they’re describing. I just wish more businesses had similar goals for their employees.


Image via Wikipedia CC