Nassim Taleb, the economist who predicted the last major financial collapse, posted a striking excerpt from his new book on Facebook. See if this sounds familiar:
Imagine someone of the type we call neurotic in common parlance. He is wiry, looks contorted, and speaks with an uneven voice. His necks moves around when he tries to express himself
Compare him to someone with the opposite temperament, imperturbable, with the calm under fire that is considered necessary to become a leader, military commander or a mafia godfather
The supply of information to which we are exposed under modernity is transforming humans from the equable second fellow to the neurotic first. For the purpose of our discussion, the second fellow only reacts to real information, the first largely to noise.
It did to me! So today, I decided to dig through some data and do a little math. On a typical workday, I:
-Check my desktop email at least 55 times
-Check my mobile email at least 18 times
-Check Twitter at least, roughly, 350 times (it also flows by in real time on a second monitor)
-Tweet 37 times (according to Twitter)
-Send about 40 emails
-Receive and see roughly 8 times that many, across accounts
-Interact with Facebook, via notifications, about 11 times
-Generate about 600 words of IM chat a day (some days as little as 200, others in excess of 2000)
-Make 6 phone calls
-Send 7 texts (wildly inconsistent — sometimes none, sometimes dozens)
Then there's the browsing. I regularly find myself hitting Chrome's "Close Other Tabs" button and have come to adore the melty animation Google uses for this mass-tab execution. It's a new and wonderful and essential feeling of relief.
It turns out I visit, on average, 659 distinct pages a day on my work desktop alone. Which I actually think is low! A lot of these, however, are videos, longer articles, or pages in my work's CMS. Some I linger on for minutes, or leave open for hours.
This is still miles from a full "quantification of self," but this is enough to make it very, very clear: I am one of the neurotics. This seems like an unavoidable consequence of my work — I write about tech and Buzzfeed is a website — but looking at all this data, I realize it has to be a detriment at some point.
Work is contained in this fiber of activity, and squeezing out results take a lot of effort. I, like so many people I know who work on computers, seem very inefficient. Even if my output is high, my input is astronomically higher. I'm never not looking sideways at what I'm doing, never not pulled to look at something else, never not reacting to whatever I've paused on.
It turns out there's a name for this: Continuous partial attention. Author Linda Stone coined it in 1998 while working at Microsoft:
It's a post multi-tasking behavior. The two are differentiated by the impulse that motivates them. When we multi-task, we are motivated by a desire to be more productive and more efficient... In the case of continuous partial attention, we are motivated by a desire to be a live node on the network. We want to connect, we want to effectively scan for opportunity and optimize for the best opportunities—activities or people—in any given moment.
Stone has since constructed a sort of unified theory of attention around this idea, which I think gives it a little too much credit. What's profound about it is how insidious and unnoticeable it is. It's only powerful because it's so hard to notice.
Now that I can give it a name, I find myself wondering: what did people do at desks before there were computers? Use phones and typewriters all day? Write by hand? Did fewer jobs needs desks before there were typewriters? These questions are going to spike my browser traffic to at least 10% above average today.
Anyway, aside from shutting everything down — which the brave Paul Miller is trying for a year over at the Verge — I don't know what, if anything, I should do with this data. But seeing it, and collecting it, feels like a good start.
So try it: Check your Google account activity. Recap a day on Facebook and Twitter and do a little extrapolation. Count a day's worth of emails. Put it all in one place, stare at it, and really try to remember what you did today. Then go for a walk.