Age Matters to Multitasking and Information Diets

Tyler Cowen continues the discussion about internet information culture and multitasking:

Do law partners and top investment bankers multitask?


I won't quite write "end of story" but…

Of course top CEOs don't multitask all the time, they multitask selectively, combined with periods of extreme focus.  Still, I would say that multitasking is passing the market test… It's one thing to think that a seventeen-year-old teenager will multitask too much; it's another thing to make the same claim about an extremely valuable executive, surrounded by assistants, time management specialists, and so on. [BC: Emphasis mine.]

It's true that virtually every high-performing CEO I know multitasks. To the extent they are as effective as ever, and I think they are, who's to tell them to stop multitasking?

The harder question is about the 17 year-old. Arguably, the over-30 CEO has developed a "foundation" of focus — by that I mean he has experience from pre-internet pre-iPhone life of not multitasking as much and thus he knows when to turn off the background noise and do the extreme focus Tyler mentions. The 17 year-old, by contrast, has no such experiences. Multitasking is all he's ever known and all he's ever doing even as he is "immersed in a developmental stage where impulse control is dangerously weak and the brain is at a peak of malleability." Will he be able to do extreme focus when he must?

A different but related issue is about information consumption in the age of the web. Some of the most successful consumers and producers of intellectual bits on the Internet — guys like Tyler and Andrew Sullivan — spent 30-plus years pre-Internet reading long books and establishing the foundation of knowledge upon which their bits sit. Me? I've grown up on the web. I haven't read all the Great Books. My model is more a mix of books and bits. I do believe the bits will cohere in the long-run into a kind of foundational knowledge of the sort Tyler got from books, but perhaps the books/bits ratio for me should be different than his at this stage.

9 comments on “Age Matters to Multitasking and Information Diets
  • Interesting thoughts. Perhaps, however, that the necessity of multitasking is a requirement as you shift to more managerial roles. The tasks that formerly required endless hours of hard focus are delegated and replaced by needing to manage and coordinate.

    My guess is that multitasking necessity has less to do with age and more to do with what role you fill. If you’re a software programmer, my guess is that multitasking is more hazardous.

  • I agree with Scott that role matters. Most of what an experienced CEO does is not cognitively complex, it is socially and interpersonally complex; and synthesis of a wide variety of information is more important than detailed grasp (those details should be analyzed by subordinates with deeper specific expertise). One exception is when the CEO is on the “asking” side of a personal interaction (e.g., with a large customer or investor). In that case, he or she had better focus, or face the consequences.

    A counterexample to multi-tasking among young people is video games, which require complete focus. That has a different problem, which is that it is naturally engaging (vs. a science textbook, which is more difficult). I suspect that the problem is less about focus and more about the self-discipline of focusing when it is not completely engaging.

  • The age argument seems weak to me. Saying that someone will only be able to do something unless they’ve been previously forced in a certain environment is a narrow view. What I would say is that the CEO probably has a leg up on the 17-year old- I wouldn’t sell the 17-year old that short. Focus can be learned. I would say that the 17-year old is capable of focusing but would be less inclined to because of the environment he or she has grown up in.

    This is just my personal opinion, but I think the whole distraction and the web dumbing-us-down issue is overblown.

  • Ben,

    I’m right with you on this analysis. The big question concerning focus in the age of Facebook is what will happen to the 19-year-olds who write me daily with their inability to complete basic academic assignments. They might regain focus focus later in life, or they might not. The fact we don’t know is what lends urgency to the issue.

    – Cal

  • Hi Ben! It’s been a while since I’ve commented — but I’m glad I’m back!

    I just wanted to respond to something you mentioned on this post…

    Like you, I’ve grown up on the web. My knowledge is a collection of the books I’ve read and the what I’ve read on websites and blogs. I haven’t read many of the great books — even though I majored in English Education (with several literature classes) — but I’m catching up now. I do believe that today’s youth are like us — their information consumption model is a mix of books and web. And, if you want to build a strong knowledge base in whatever you’re interested in it in the 21st century — it will definitely be a mix of books and web. But WHERE the knowledge comes from is going to be important. The bits wont come together into a cohesive form of knowledge unless you carefully choose the blogs you read, the
    Twitter-ers you follow, and more importantly the communities you join. Right now I’m a part of the Classroom 2.0 Ning community – an online community all about using web 2.0 and web tools in the classroom. Here is where I’ve found professionals I can get ideas from, help trouble shoot web applications so I can prepare myself for using them in the classroom — these are also the people I add on twitter to get me resources on tools I can use in my Language Arts classroom (yes, after I left my entrepreneurial days, I decided to teach — not as my permanent career, but it’s good enough for now:))

    So, I don’t thing you can develop a base of knowledge just reading books and blogs — you really must make good decisions online to build a strong peer and expert base to add to your knowledge.

    So, those are my two cents — what are you thoughts?

  • The vast majority of people pre-internet never learned to focus like Tyler Cowen, CEOs, et. al and the vast majority of people post-internet are still not learning to focus intensely for long periods of times.

    Focusing like that isn’t a natural task for most people and to get really good at it takes a fair bit of passion for a subject and lots of practice.

    I can see the point that it *might* be easier to learn to focus with out the distraction of phones and the internet but I’d like to see some hard evidence first from the first generation growing up with the internet.

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