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.

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