Multitasking: Friend or Foe?

My friend Amanda recently started a thread on her blog about multitasking that caught my eye. She's a bit critical of multitasking, essentially claiming it's a farce and only destroys productivity. Having worked in a number of companies and environments with different views on the issue, I think the answer is a bit more nuanced.

The presumption that any multitasking defeats productivity is grounded in a pretty broad assumption that all tasks require 100% effort or attention to complete them efficiently. Rather, the discussion should be more around the "return," so to speak, on one's effort. For example, have you ever gone to a store and not fonud what you wanted on the shelf? Of course you have; stockouts are a part of retail. In a well run company, such situations are engineered, not happenstance. At some point, the cost of tying up the company's capital by holding more inventory, hiring more stocking personnel, etc. can no longer justify the marginal increase in sales from guaranteeing you'll have a product. Of course, having too high of a stockout rate can be detrimental to business, by missing out on revenue from unsatisfied customers.

The same principles should apply to how we use our time. Some tasks do demand one's full attention. For example, it probably wouldn't be a good idea to multitask by watching a movie while taking a final exam or checking your blackberry while on a dinner date (provided you're interested in the person across from you). On the other hand, taking a call while riding in a cab is likely an efficient form of multitasking; the odds of you reaching your destination by *really* focusing on that cab ride probably aren't much higher than if you zone out in the back seat.

In other instances, multitasking may also be a good idea because it improves the productivity of what you're already doing. This is why people take notes in meetings and refer to documents/presentations while on teleconferences. There's also the argument of multitasking to increase group efficiency as opposed to just your own, i.e. replying to an e-mail during part of a meeting that doesn't pertain to you may be the most efficient use of your time.

The point is, the situation isn't as black-and-white as many make it out to be. Ultimately, society probably needs to coalesce around some norms that dictate proper vs. improper use of multitasking. Being in a long distance relationship, I tried to spark such an "agreement" with my girlfriend around how we can use various communication tools most efficiently. Needless to say, this might not have been the right way to go about it. "Efficient communications use" matrices that lead to messages such as "if we talk on IM during the day it may mean I have to work later, which might mean we don't get to talk on the phone at night" apparently are not as well received in personal life as in business. So, yeah, you may want to have more tact in raising the topic of personal resource allocation than I did.


Work is Awesome, Especially When Matchbox Twenty Shows Up

I normally make it a point not to speak about work in my blog, out of respect for Google, our partners and our competitors. Today, however, Rob Thomas specifically asked me (well, me and a few hundred coworkers) to do so, so I am. You've probably already heard that Google is an awesome place to work, from me, Fortune, or whoever. But today was one of those days that really nailed it home.

This weekend I went back to Philly for Penn homecoming, my frat(DSP)'s centennial anniversary and, of course, an excuse to see my girlfriend Megan who's back in New York. It was a great weekend, but my flight back was delayed and by the time I got home it was about 1:30am in San Francisco. Needless to say, I wasn't happy with my 5:45 alarm this morning.

If I worked anywhere else, today would have been terrible. But I don't; I'm lucky enough to work for Google. That doesn't mean I didn't need an absurd amount of caffeine to stay awake today, because I did, but luckily it also meant that after a long day, I got to sit back and watch Matchbox Twenty play a Googlers-only concert on our campus. Why? Just because they felt like it.

I honestly had kind of forgotten about Matchbox Twenty. Loved them back in middle school and high school, but soon after my sister went to FSU, our family converted to country fans. Today's concert alone probably made me a fan again. The band was hilarious and awesome in acoustic, despite their disbelief in rehearsing before shows, and the room was filled with an amazing energy.

The best part, though, was when one of my coworkers stood up during Q&A and, in front of hundreds of people, explained that she was a big fan and had a hard day and just needed a hug and a kiss. So Rob Thomas invited her up to collect. So, yeah, her day was even better than mine. At so many other companies, HR probably would've been drafting her "resignation" on the spot, but here that sort of thing just flies - just like when Googler Brian Bautista asked John Legend if he could come sing on stage with him...and did! (check it out on YouTube)

Anyhow, I'll stop sounding like too much of a Googley-eyed little boy, but this was a great day and I thought I'd share.


As an aside: Additional props to M20 for releasing their new album, Exile on Mainstream, on a USB drive to allow fans more freedom to decide when and how they use their music. It's about time artists realize that technology is their friend, not a foe. I'm going to buy the album for the premium price of $35 just to support the notion of what they're doing. And that's roughly $35 more than I've spent on albums in the last decade.

I was also happy to see other artists trying out new models, like Radiohead's "It's Up to You" pricing scheme for In Rainbows and Prince giving away 2.8 million copies of his album Planet Earth with the Sunday paper back in July.


Social Networking Goes Mobile

If you're a facebook junkie like me, you probably check your profile a few times a day, have at least 20 apps downloaded and read your news feeds more closely than any major publication. I love facebook, but it has one fatal flaw..mobile access.

I can't tell you how many times I've tried to login to facebook on my blackberry and been denied. Yet, I try again and again because I want...nay...NEED access to my network's information when I'm not in front of my computer.

Zuckerberg isn't moving in that direction quickly enough, though, so others are doing it for him. Personally, I'm psyched about the rash of mobile networking start-ups delivering products that may eventually unseat social networking champions MySpace and facebook. Some obvious early examples come to mind, such as twitter, etc, but my favorite to date is one you may not know of...yet.

I was priveleged to be invited to Styky's alpha testing last March and haven't been able to stop thinking about it since. Previously, I'd heard a bit about what Styky founder Kunal Gupta was working on, but didn't quite get it until I had the chance to play with the tool firsthand. The company announced Styky's launch at TechCrunch and it's been all up-hill since then. Styky has lots of cool functionality already (phonebook sharing, picture sharing, mobile couponing, even a handy facebook app to grab phone numbers from your network), but I'm even more excited about it's future potential. Doesn't the idea of a future twitter + styky + facebook + Google solution make you druel? Me too!

Have you heard of other great mobile social networking solutions? If you have, please let me know- I'd love to explore!


Hot Air Ballooning in Napa

One of the things I've come to love about all the many I've lived is the distinct, native beauty that each has to offer. Among my favorites are:

Boston: Cape cod and the vineyard
New York: fall foliage up the Hudson
Florida: The beach air at night
Philadelphia: ok...I'm stumped here

But thus far in the Sf Bay Area, California wine country is by far my favorite. Most of my friends assume I like it so much because I'm an oenophile and it's an excuse to indulge in wine, but my true guilty pleasure is driving through the serene valleys and mountain roads and taking in the sights that mother nature, and a few thousand wineries, have to offer.

Last weekend my love affair deepened, as I got to see the valley from an entirely different perspective. My girlfriend Megan is undeniably more adventurous than I, and this year she wanted to go hot air ballooning for her birthday. As someone who doesn't handle heights well, this terrified me at first, but overcoming the fear was well worth it. The views were breathtaking- even nice enough to make the 4am wake-up time well worth it. I though I'd share some of my pics with you so that you could see for yourself just how lovely our morning in the air was.

(And if you have the urge to go on a similar adventure, I highly recommend Napa Valley Ballons.)

Hot Air Ballooning in Napa - October 2007 - PUBLIC


Pimp My iPod

LA-based Etch-Star has launched the beta version of an online portal that allows users to pimp their iPods, iPhones and MacBooks in all new ways. Customers choose from the company's library of popular artwork or submit their own designs, then mail-in their devices for etching. The site is still pretty new, but you can check out some of their prior work on flickr.

Some people might be nervous about mailing their beloved Video iPod, but the company provides safe shipping supplies and will even commit to a next day return, so you won't have to actually hear other people at the gym for more than a couple days. The present price for etching is ~$25-$35 for iPods and iPhones, not a bad deal for those looking to preserve their individuality among a sea of mainstream Apple enthusiasts. Oh, and if you don't have an iPod yet? Don't worry- you can buy one and order etching all at once on the site.

Personally, I think it would be neat if they adopted a model similar to Threadless, where artists can submit their artwork to the user community and ultimately receive rewards for popular designs. There's probably less potential for repeat community-driven business here, so a voting mechanism might not be as effective, but if they can somehow generate mass submissions, there's probably a good deal of re-use potential in anything from creating t-shirts (dude my iPod matches my shirt!) to tattoos. Of course, tattoos might be a bit more difficult to deliver via FedEx...

Oh, and have a couple $100k you're looking to invest? Etchstar is raising seed capital, so you're in luck!


Rock, Paper, Scissors Hits the Big Screen Just in Time for World RPS Championship

A friend of mine has been working on a neat film for a couple years now and the trailer finally released this week. The movie, Flying Scissors, is a feature-length mockumentary about competitive "Rock, Paper, Scissors"- something like Spellbound meets The Office meets third grade. Looks pretty funny- so I thought I'd share. (Feel free to check out the trailer on YouTube or visit the official homepage.)

The release of the trailer is timed beautifully, leading up to this Saturday's World Rock, Paper, Scissors Championship in Toronto. Think I'm kidding? Actually, competitive RPS is very real. And for a mere $40, you can buy-in on the action- a much more economical shot at 15 minutes of fame on ESPN than the $10,000 World Series of Poker ante. Of course, streaking through a professional sporting event still probably carries the best ROI, offering a guaranteed 30 second spot on Sportscenter (times 12 airings/day) and a 1 in 10 chance of making plays of the week as an extra special bonus.

I'm glad to see the "sport" of RPS seems to really be picking up steam, with ESPN airing competitive RPS on the network back in July and noteworthy publications, including TechCrunch and the Associated Press, taking note as well. A few years ago some friends and I were in Napa during the Western regional finals, but passed up going to visit a few wineries. I love good wine, but in hindsight, it probably would've been much more memorable to go see the RPS tournament.

To learn more, visit The World RPS Society or USA RPS.

And if you happen to be competing this weekend, best of luck...and, please, please do report back on your experience!


Amazing Minority Report-style Touchscreen

Some of you may have seen this in the past, but even if you have, it's worth another look. Jeff Han, a computer scientist at NYU has launched a company called Perceptive Pixel, that produces and distributes a rather amazing multi-touch interface, highly customizable to a specific user/organization's needs.

The demo is reminiscent of Minority Report, in which Hollywood's King Crazy, Tom Cruise, puts on some highly futuristic gloves with glowing fingertips and begins navigating a wall-sized computer screen with lightning speed. Opening, closing, expanding, shrinking, rotating and zooming images without so much as a keyboard or mouse anywhere in sight. When I first saw the movie, I thought "wow- that would be awesome!" I never realized that less than two years later, the real deal would be shipping to U.S. defense agencies as a viable product.

What a great world!