07/10/2012 02:07 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2012

Multitasking: There's an App for That

Want true love in your life? There's an app for that. Want to know what secrets tomorrow holds for you? There are dozens of apps for that. Want to lose 10 pounds in just 10 days? You guessed it -- an app. Life is now so simple for everyone that you don't need to think deeply or creatively or even make sense of out of the mystery of why your purse expands faster than the universe and your promiscuous schedule is having babies again. Thanks to your fairy godmother and Steve Jobs you just need to find the right app, consult it every five minutes and maybe offer up a human sacrifice now and then and your dreams will come true. To those who believe that tallying up the marks on their checklist is as close to euphoria as the human experience allows your day has indeed arrived. But what about us silly bees who want more honey and less buzz in our little lives and hives?

The truth will set you free -- so will a good lawyer, a million in unmarked bills or a few Mai Tais at your favorite Tiki bar -- but apps will only make you more efficient. Apps are a reflection -- no a manifestation -- of our desire to do more and more without making any real decisions about what we need to stop doing. That's because it's much easier to start something new than to stop something old. Just add an app. They're cheap and easy -- just the way we like 'em. Will you ever really make time to go to the gym, reconnect with that dear friend or write that coming-of-age novel?  Not if you have the attention span of a gnat. Oh look, my app just pinged me on a special deal -- a collector's edition of refrigerator magnets of calico kittens wearing hats from around the world.

Systemizing isn't the same as simplifying. The former produces efficiency while the later produces the capacity for effectiveness. Nowhere is this more evident than in the conduct and conventions of our young. In his book The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, Emory University professor of English Mark Bauerlein -- former director of research and analysis at the National Endowment for the Arts -- cites numerous studies that suggest writing and reasoning skills have exponentially worsened in the digital age. The late comedian Greg Giraldo had a great bit -- albeit blue -- comparing letters written by soldiers during the Civil War to those written today. The contrast is, well, hilarious and sad. Apparently as smartphones get smarter we get dumber.

Commenting on his study regarding the effects of multitasking on cognitive control delivered at the National Academy Sciences, Stanford professor Clifford Nass summarized his research findings by saying "Multitaskers were just lousy at everything. They're suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them." So we seek more continuity and sensibility in our postmodern life by deconstructing it into virtual Lego. This distracted and compartmentalized multitasking modus operandi -- AppTitude -- has serious consequences when our full attention is required; driving and personal safety come to mind.

This app-as-life analogy applies to many of us who embrace a multifarious lifestyle. Take the Tiger Mom archetype for example, trying to squeeze one more activity into her day. This problem isn't coordinating the complexity as much as it is shifting the mindset that creates it. In a recent piece in The Atlantic, "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," Anne-Marie Slaughter, former Princeton dean and director of policy planning at the state department, suggests that women are being overwhelmed by the pressures of multitasking in pursuit of too many conflicting demands. Her mere suggestion that women have bought into a futile fantasy -- a triple threat of fabulous career, personal fulfillment and caregiver extraordinaire -- has stirred up swarms of bitter bees from all directions. What is it about admitting that we can't have it all -- at least all at once -- that makes us so angry?

Obsessive multitasking is not unique to those of agile thumb or overactive ambition. Most us of suffer from abundance myths. As chronically hip Ray Charles put it: "But when you break it down, what does it matter? I can only sleep in one bed at a time. I can only make love to one woman at a time." That kind of sums it up. When is enough enough? The coolest guy of recent memory knew that doing everything at once doesn't focus us or make us more effective; it just distracts us from what we authentically seek. I guess we really have to be an Einstein to understand that "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them." Translation: If your life feels like little disconnected pieces using little disconnected pieces of software probably isn't the answer.

Proficiency is not efficiency -- it's the loyal opposition. Just because you know how to push the camera button on your iPhone doesn't make you a photographer. Take a quick cyber visit to your friend's smartphone exhibit on Picasa. Chances are it looks like a homage to the Polaroid Swinger or maybe a video retrospective on cinéma vérité -- Jean-Luc Godard's "Birthday Party Girls Gone Wild." Consider how the Garage Band app has produced a whole new generation of gangster rappers -- coming to a suburban basement near you. While the app may help you lay down some choice tracks it can't change your taste in music or make your tune not suck.

Apps are terrific for creating order out of what passes for your disjointed life -- keeping track of the kid-lets, your 401K (or what's left of it) and booking that special trip for crazy old Aunt Agatha who wants to see her favorite nephew one last time -- again. For me, good apps should do three things: make complexity simple, manage logistics, or convey information. I use apps to coordinate the indiscriminate facets of my portfolio life. They allow me to keep the details of my business, academics and family life from completely spilling over like alphabet soup, which in turn allows me to organize my life without worrying about the mechanics of doing so.

While apps have the utility to synchronize things, they do it by busting up the continuity of my existence into nasty little pieces. Taskaholic that I am, I continue to believe that I can slow down by speeding things up. I have dozens of apps on my iPhone, and I'm constantly looking for new ones. Like that winning lottery ticket I'm sure that I'm only one app away from making it all work -- together. Then I will be loved, see the future first, lose 10 pounds in 10 days, and be truly free.

Jeff DeGraff is a professor of management and organizations at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan. To learn more about his book "Innovation You" and PBS special by the same name, visit his website at or follow his blog on innovation at

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