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The Lie of Multitasking

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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.

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