May 5 2009
by Scott Johnson

Paying Attention

There is a very interesting article in the NYT today about how the brain concentrates.  (

There is one quote I found particularly provocative by Winifred Gallagher.

“Multitasking is a myth,” Ms. Gallagher said. “You cannot do two things at once. The mechanism of attention is selection: it’s either this or it’s that.”

Now, as someone who is constantly multitasking, I have to take issue with this.  If you dive deeply into a task, and are in the middle of, say, writing a term sheet, and then get interrupted by a scheduled pitch meeting, during which you respond to several emails and post a tweet, you are only doing one thing at a time, but you are multi-tasking.  It is just multi-tasking in sequence.  I think it is a question of ability to transition from one item to the next, to the next, and back again to the first, and pick up where you left off quickly that is different from one person to the next.  I think of it as the ability to save the state of each task in your brain, and quickly resume the task having “paused” your thoughts.  I am pretty good at this.  I have met some lawyers who are truly amazing at this.  They can be in the middle of reading a mind-numbing 60 page contract, take a phone call, and instantly recall the tiniest details of a different mind-numbing 60 page contract and render sound advice.  

Were they born this way.  Partially I suspect.  But there I also believe the brain can be trained to do this.  I have no data to prove it, but brains tend to be trainable.  Of course, they can be trained to lose the ability to “save state” as well.  I have found that a glass of wine interferes.  

Now, what was I doing before I decided to pen this post……

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