Sendhil Panchadsaram

Random thoughts about whatever I feel like.

The Lie of Multitasking

Posted on April 5, 2013

For all three of you that have been waiting on the sequel to my last post, I apologize this one’s taken so long to get out. Who knew writing TL;DR posts take a while? Anyhow, that being said, I wanted to pick up where I left off on my last post and start to dive into some of the findings from the books I read and continue with this series of posts on some of the harmful effects that result from how most of us use technology. For the next few posts we’ll be focusing on David Sousa’s book, “Brainwork: The Neuroscience Behind How We Lead Others”. One of the first things he addresses is the subject of multitasking and it’s detrimental effects (I hope my title was a hint).

Apparent Productivity

Multi tasking is everywhere these days, there isn’t a single person who doesn’t have several things going on at once. Almost all of us have a smart phone with texting and push notifications that go off all day. Ever sit around the table with a few people for a social engagement and notice what always happens at a regular frequency? That’s right, phones will buzz and their respective owners immediately pick them up and respond to whatever demanded their attention whether it was a text from a spouse or a push notification from Facebook telling them someone they could care less about liked their latest status update. The entire evening will consist of people’s attention being drawn away from what’s right in front of them and shift toward that computer in their pocket.

Let us look at work for another example, most of us work on a computer all day that’s rife with multi tasking. For example, most people while performing a task for work will have several different programs competing for their attention at a moment’s notice. Things ranging from email, to instant messaging, to Twitter, to Facebook. Instead of someone staying fully focused on a single task, they often will swap back and forth between writing a word document and writing an instant message to someone. Or they’ll swap from reading a specification to reading the latest tweets. Or they’ll swap from writing some code to writing a comment on a Facebook post. Add cell phones and the people around you to this mix, and as you can surmise, opportunities to multi task intentionally and through interruptions abound.

Now you might be asking, so what? What’s the harm in doing all these things at once. Am I not being more productive by doing several things at once? After all, I’m writing this document for work while carrying on an instant messaging conversation with a friend while responding to the latest comment to a picture of my lunch on Instagram. While it might seem like you are being more productive doing several things at once, the truth is that you aren’t actually accomplishing as much as you think and there are long-term implications to constantly multi tasking(more on this in a future post in this series).

Our Brain’s can’t Multitask

Truth is that for the most part the brain can’t multi task. It can sometimes, but only when it’s using different parts of the brain, i.e. if you are engaged in a task where one part of your brain is using your motor skills and another part of your brain is using your cognitive skills. For example almost all of us can walk and talk. Once you start to do things that need the same part of your brain, problems will arise. Let’s go through a few examples from Sousa’s book. First up is a motor skills activity:

Let’s demonstrate this notion with a simple but amusing motor skills activity. Sit in a chair, lift your right leg, and move it in clockwise circles for several seconds. Stop. Place your right foot back on the floor. Now extend your right arm and your right index finger. Use this finger to draw the number 8 continuously for several seconds. Stop. Now lift your right leg and move it in clockwise circles while at the same time drawing the number 8 with your right hand. How did you do? Did you lose control of either your leg or your hand movements?

Interesting huh? Now let’s move to something more cognitive. Ever try to talk on phone while using the computer for a particular focused task such as email? What happened? Stop and think about it for a minute. I know most of you are thinking that you did both, but if you think closely you’ll realize that as you were typing your email out you didn’t hear much of anything that the person on the phone said and the times you were intently focused on the phone you probably weren’t writing a lot of email. Now you might have jumped back and forth between the tasks, but you never did both at the same time.

Now you’ll probably point out that what’s the harm in jumping back and forth, you are still getting more done, right? Truth is you aren’t because there’s a cognitive cost your brain will pay to switch back and forth between tasks. This cost will result in you doing both tasks more slowly and both tasks will be performed less accurately. Here’s a fun example from the book:

Try this simple activity that demonstrates how alternate tasking causes cognitive problems. Get ready to count as quickly as you can from one to ten. Ready? Go! That probably took you about two seconds. Now get ready to recite the alphabet letters from A to J quickly. Ready? Go! That also took you around two seconds. If we put these two tasks together, one after the other, it would take you four seconds to complete. Instead, I would like you to interweave the two tasks as fast as you can, that is, A, 1, B, 2, and so on. Ready? Go! Now that likely took you fifteen to twenty seconds, and you may have made some errors. Your brain had to continually shift from the alphabet task to the counting task and back again. This constant shifting between or among items in working memory comes at a cognitive cost not only in time, but also in accuracy and attention.

Fascinating isn’t it? Now that we’ve established that the common view of multitasking doesn’t line up with reality, we’ll next take a look at some of the harmful long-term effects of being engaged in multitasking all the time.

I Love Technology, I Hate Technology: Introduction

Posted on March 16, 2013

It goes without saying I’m a big fan of technology. I remember watching Star Trek as a kid and dreaming of a day when the technology I saw would become a reality. Fast forward a decade or so and we’re there. We don’t quite have teleportation yet which would be super useful in avoiding the ‘random’ searches I always get at the airport. As an example of said technology, here is an episode that ran during the 1990s:

star trek padd

And less than fifteen years later, we have this:

I can’t even begin to imagine what technology will look like fifteen years from now. I’m getting giddy right now just thinking about it, especially those hover boards that were everywhere in 2015 according to Back to the Future 2. Although I’m probably too old to start skating, the auto drying jacket would be very useful during the 9 months of the year Seattle’s weather is so awful it makes me wonder why I ever left San Diego. While I could go on and on about how much I love technology and hate Seattle’s weather, this post is meant to be an introduction to a series of posts I wanted to write about the how the use of technology has negative affects on our ability to focus. Make no mistake, I love technology and this post isn’t a rant on why we should all become Amish, but rather some reflections on the dangers of the way we currently use technology and some hopefully helpful pointers on how to navigate those dangers and the blessings that will come about as a result.

This content all came about as a result of a few weeks of reading and thinking through these issues at the start of this year, but I found no better summary as to how I feel and what I wanted to address than this excerpt from an article in the LA Times entitled “The lost art of reading”:

Of course, the source of my distraction is somewhat different: not an event of great significance but the usual ongoing trivialities. I am too susceptible, it turns out, to the tumult of the culture, the sound and fury signifying nothing. For many years, I have read, like E.I. Lonoff in Philip Roth’s “The Ghost Writer,” primarily at night — a few hours every evening once my wife and kids have gone to bed. These days, however, after spending hours reading e-mails and fielding phone calls in the office, tracking stories across countless websites, I find it difficult to quiet down. I pick up a book and read a paragraph; then my mind wanders and I check my e-mail, drift onto the Internet, pace the house before returning to the page. Or I want to do these things but don’t. I force myself to remain still, to follow whatever I’m reading until the inevitable moment I give myself over to the flow. Eventually I get there, but some nights it takes 20 pages to settle down. What I’m struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it’s mostly just a series of disconnected riffs and fragments that add up to the anxiety of the age.

Most of the content for this series came about during the transition time between my last job(Crumbly) and my current one (Automattic). I had a bit of downtime because of the holiday season and a desire to take some time off. I thought given all this downtime, I’d be able to use it fruitfully to start knocking things off my to do list, read those books I’ve always meant to, work on those projects I’d always postponed, etc. Around Christmas time, I realized I wasn’t being all that effective and I barely got anything done during my time off. The excerpt above captures my feelings pretty well. I would try and read or focus on something and my mind would wander. I’d check email, check out my favorite websites, check Twitter, etc. A few minutes into these wanderings I’d catch myself and then I’d go back to reading. A few minutes later I was back on email and the cycle would repeat itself.

I started to wonder why this was and I providentially stumbled onto(read: Googled) this article from Lifehacker entitled “How to Rebuild Your Attention Span and Focus”.

Many people want the ability to focus more and feel like they’re losing the ability to focus on a particular task for long periods of time. We feel like we’re losing that ability. Getting Things Done and all the other books out there tend to give you some rituals to cope with the problem — but only if you could stick to them. Most of us, just a few weeks after reading that book, sit next to filing cabinets (virtual or otherwise) and go about our merry way.

That’s because we’re focused on the wrong thing. To get a longer attention span — even a span long enough to read this article — don’t worry about managing the information. Worry about managing your attention. Paying attention, for long periods of time, is a form of endurance athleticism. Like running a marathon, it requires practice and training to get the most out of it. It is as much Twitter’s fault that you have a short attention span as it is your closet’s fault it doesn’t have any running shoes in it. If you want the ability to focus on things for a long period of time, you need attention fitness.

Neuroplasticity is how your brain changes its organization over time to deal with new experiences. It involves physical changes inside of the brain based on the particular tasks the brain is asked to complete. It’s why the hippocampus of a seasoned taxi driver in London is larger than average, and how a meditating monk grows grey matter. Your brain isn’t amythological deity but a physical part of your body that needs to be taken care of just like the rest of your body. And your body responds to two things really well — diet and exercise. Let’s presume your brain, being a part of the body, also does.

After reading this I began to think about how my use of technology was changing the way my brain worked and how it contributed to my inability to focus for long periods of time. This led me to two books in particular which I found to be incredibly useful in helping me to better understand my own mind and how my use of technology affected it. The first was “Brainwork: The Neuroscience Behind How We Lead Others” by David Sousa and the second was “Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick” by Jeremy Dean.

Stay tuned for part 2 where I’ll start to dive into Sousa’s book and some thoughts on multitasking.

Joined Automattic, Started a Blog

Posted on March 14, 2013

Life’s been plenty busy these days. I spent the last two years of my life working on a startup I co-founded called Crumbly which was an iOS app with the goal of helping people find places based on their friends social context. Sadly, like many startups, it never took off like we had hoped. As I began to look for what was next, I applied to work at Automattic at the nudging of my friend Dan Roundhill who worked on their mobile team. After the most interesting interview process I’ve ever done, Automattic made me an offer to join their mobile team. As you probably guessed from the title, I accepted the job and my first day at Automattic was February 1st.

Being as Automattic is the company behind WordPress.com, it felt somewhat proper that I should start a blog. As such, this blog is born. I would promise to make it interesting, funny, and life altering, but that would be a lie. That being said, my ego would still appreciate it if you would stick around anyway.

  

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