Tag Archives: multitasking

Multitasking: A Powerful and Diabolical Illusion

Our ever-increasingly ubiquitous technology makes possible all manner of things that would have been insurmountable just decades ago. We carry smartphones that envelope more computational power than mainframes just a generation ago. Yet for all this power at our fingertips we seem to forget that we are still very much human animals with limitations. One such “shortcoming” [your friendly editor believes it’s a boon] is our inability to multitask like our phones. I’ve written about this before, and am compelled to do so again after reading this thoughtful essay by Daniel J. Levitin, extracted from his book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. I even had to use his phrasing for the title of this post.

From the Guardian:

Our brains are busier than ever before. We’re assaulted with facts, pseudo facts, jibber-jabber, and rumour, all posing as information. Trying to figure out what you need to know and what you can ignore is exhausting. At the same time, we are all doing more. Thirty years ago, travel agents made our airline and rail reservations, salespeople helped us find what we were looking for in shops, and professional typists or secretaries helped busy people with their correspondence. Now we do most of those things ourselves. We are doing the jobs of 10 different people while still trying to keep up with our lives, our children and parents, our friends, our careers, our hobbies, and our favourite TV shows.

Our smartphones have become Swiss army knife–like appliances that include a dictionary, calculator, web browser, email, Game Boy, appointment calendar, voice recorder, guitar tuner, weather forecaster, GPS, texter, tweeter, Facebook updater, and flashlight. They’re more powerful and do more things than the most advanced computer at IBM corporate headquarters 30 years ago. And we use them all the time, part of a 21st-century mania for cramming everything we do into every single spare moment of downtime. We text while we’re walking across the street, catch up on email while standing in a queue – and while having lunch with friends, we surreptitiously check to see what our other friends are doing. At the kitchen counter, cosy and secure in our domicile, we write our shopping lists on smartphones while we are listening to that wonderfully informative podcast on urban beekeeping.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. Although we think we’re doing several things at once, multitasking, this is a powerful and diabolical illusion. Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and one of the world experts on divided attention, says that our brains are “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.” So we’re not actually keeping a lot of balls in the air like an expert juggler; we’re more like a bad amateur plate spinner, frantically switching from one task to another, ignoring the one that is not right in front of us but worried it will come crashing down any minute. Even though we think we’re getting a lot done, ironically, multitasking makes us demonstrably less efficient.

Multitasking has been found to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline, which can overstimulate your brain and cause mental fog or scrambled thinking. Multitasking creates a dopamine-addiction feedback loop, effectively rewarding the brain for losing focus and for constantly searching for external stimulation. To make matters worse, the prefrontal cortex has a novelty bias, meaning that its attention can be easily hijacked by something new – the proverbial shiny objects we use to entice infants, puppies, and kittens. The irony here for those of us who are trying to focus amid competing activities is clear: the very brain region we need to rely on for staying on task is easily distracted. We answer the phone, look up something on the internet, check our email, send an SMS, and each of these things tweaks the novelty- seeking, reward-seeking centres of the brain, causing a burst of endogenous opioids (no wonder it feels so good!), all to the detriment of our staying on task. It is the ultimate empty-caloried brain candy. Instead of reaping the big rewards that come from sustained, focused effort, we instead reap empty rewards from completing a thousand little sugar-coated tasks.

In the old days, if the phone rang and we were busy, we either didn’t answer or we turned the ringer off. When all phones were wired to a wall, there was no expectation of being able to reach us at all times – one might have gone out for a walk or been between places – and so if someone couldn’t reach you (or you didn’t feel like being reached), it was considered normal. Now more people have mobile phones than have toilets. This has created an implicit expectation that you should be able to reach someone when it is convenient for you, regardless of whether it is convenient for them. This expectation is so ingrained that people in meetings routinely answer their mobile phones to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk now, I’m in a meeting.” Just a decade or two ago, those same people would have let a landline on their desk go unanswered during a meeting, so different were the expectations for reachability.

Just having the opportunity to multitask is detrimental to cognitive performance. Glenn Wilson, former visiting professor of psychology at Gresham College, London, calls it info-mania. His research found that being in a situation where you are trying to concentrate on a task, and an email is sitting unread in your inbox, can reduce your effective IQ by 10 points. And although people ascribe many benefits to marijuana, including enhanced creativity and reduced pain and stress, it is well documented that its chief ingredient, cannabinol, activates dedicated cannabinol receptors in the brain and interferes profoundly with memory and with our ability to concentrate on several things at once. Wilson showed that the cognitive losses from multitasking are even greater than the cognitive losses from pot?smoking.

Russ Poldrack, a neuroscientist at Stanford, found that learning information while multitasking causes the new information to go to the wrong part of the brain. If students study and watch TV at the same time, for example, the information from their schoolwork goes into the striatum, a region specialised for storing new procedures and skills, not facts and ideas. Without the distraction of TV, the information goes into the hippocampus, where it is organised and categorised in a variety of ways, making it easier to retrieve. MIT’s Earl Miller adds, “People can’t do [multitasking] very well, and when they say they can, they’re deluding themselves.” And it turns out the brain is very good at this deluding business.

Then there are the metabolic costs that I wrote about earlier. Asking the brain to shift attention from one activity to another causes the prefrontal cortex and striatum to burn up oxygenated glucose, the same fuel they need to stay on task. And the kind of rapid, continual shifting we do with multitasking causes the brain to burn through fuel so quickly that we feel exhausted and disoriented after even a short time. We’ve literally depleted the nutrients in our brain. This leads to compromises in both cognitive and physical performance. Among other things, repeated task switching leads to anxiety, which raises levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the brain, which in turn can lead to aggressive and impulsive behaviour. By contrast, staying on task is controlled by the anterior cingulate and the striatum, and once we engage the central executive mode, staying in that state uses less energy than multitasking and actually reduces the brain’s need for glucose.

To make matters worse, lots of multitasking requires decision-making: Do I answer this text message or ignore it? How do I respond to this? How do I file this email? Do I continue what I’m working on now or take a break? It turns out that decision-making is also very hard on your neural resources and that little decisions appear to take up as much energy as big ones. One of the first things we lose is impulse control. This rapidly spirals into a depleted state in which, after making lots of insignificant decisions, we can end up making truly bad decisions about something important. Why would anyone want to add to their daily weight of information processing by trying to multitask?

Read the entire article here.

The Spacetime Discontinuum

Einstein transformed our notions of the universe, teaching us, amongst other things, that time is relative to the velocity of the observer. While he had in mind no less than the entire cosmos when constructing his elegant theories, he failed to consider relativity in the home and workplace, and specifically how women and men experience time differently.

From the WSJ:

Several years ago, while observing a parenting group in Minnesota, I was struck by a confession one of the women made to her peers: She didn’t really care that her husband did the dishes after dinner. Sure, it was swell of him, and she had friends whose husbands did less. But what she really wanted, at that point in her day, was for her husband to volunteer to put the kids to bed. She would have been glad to sit in the kitchen on her own for a few minutes with the water running and her mind wandering. Another woman chimed in: “Totally. The dishes don’t talk back to you.”

According to the American Time Use Survey—which asks thousands of Americans annually to chronicle how they spend their days—men and women now work roughly the same number of hours a week (though men work more paid hours, and women more unpaid). Given this balanced ledger, one might guess that all would finally be quiet on the domestic front—that women would finally have stopped wondering how they, rather than their husbands, got suckered into such a heavy load. But they haven’t. The question is: Why?

Part of the problem is that averages treat all data as if they’re the same and therefore combinable, which often results in a kind of absurdity. On average, human beings have half an Adam’s apple, but no one thinks to lump men and women together this way. Similarly, we should not assume that men and women’s working hours are the same in kind. The fact is, men and women experience their time very differently.

For starters, not all work is created equal. An hour spent on one kind of task is not necessarily the equivalent of an hour spent on another. Take child care, a task to which mothers devote far more hours than dads. It creates much more stress in women than other forms of housework. In “Alone Together” (2007), a comprehensive look at the state of American marriage, the authors found that if women believe child care is unevenly divided in their homes, this imbalance is much more likely to affect their marital happiness than a perceived imbalance in, say, vacuuming.

Or consider night duty. Sustained sleep deprivation, as we know, consigns people to their own special league of misery. But it’s generally mothers, rather than fathers, who are halfway down the loonytown freeway to hysterical exhaustion, at least in the early years of parenting. According to the American Time Use Survey, women in dual-earner couples are three times more likely to report interrupted sleep if they have a child under the age of 1, and stay-at-home mothers are six times as likely to get up with their children as are stay-at-home fathers.

Funny: I once sat on a panel with Adam Mansbach, the author of the best-selling parody “Go the F— to Sleep.” At one point in the discussion, he conceded that his partner put his child to bed most nights. He may have written a book about the tyranny of toddlers at bedtime, but in his house, it was mainly Mom’s problem.

Complicating matters, mothers assume a disproportionate number of time-sensitive domestic tasks, whether it’s getting their toddlers dressed for school or their 12-year-olds off to swim practice. Their daily routine is speckled with what sociologists Annette Lareau and Elliot Weininger call “pressure points,” or nonnegotiable demands that make their lives, as the authors put it, “more frenetic.”

These deadlines have unintended consequences. They force women to search for wormholes in the time-space continuum simply to accomplish all the things that they need to do. In 2011, the sociologists Shira Offer and Barbara Schneider found that mothers spend, on average, 10 extra hours a week multitasking than do fathers “and that these additional hours are mainly related to time spent on housework and child care.”

When fathers spend time at home, on the other hand, it reduces their odds of multitasking by over 30%. Which may explain why, a few years ago, researchers from UCLA found that a father in a room by himself was the “person-space configuration observed most frequently” in their close study of 32 families at home. It may also explain why many fathers manage to finish the Sunday paper while their wives do not—they’re not constantly getting up to refill bowls of Cheerios.

Being compelled to divide and subdivide your time doesn’t just compromise your productivity and lead to garden-variety discombobulation. It also creates a feeling of urgency—a sense that no matter how tranquil the moment, no matter how unpressured the circumstances, there’s always a pot somewhere that’s about to boil over.

Read the entire essay here.

Single-tasking is Human

If you’re an office worker you will relate. Recently, you will have participated on a team meeting or conference call only to have at least one person say, when asked a question, “sorry can you please repeat that, I was multitasking.”

Many of us believe, or have been tricked into believing, that doing multiple things at once makes us more productive. This phenomenon was branded by business as multitasking. After all, if computers could do it, then why not humans. Yet, experience shows that humans are woefully inadequate at performing multiple concurrent tasks that require dedicated attention. Of course, humans are experts at walking and chewing gum at the same time. However, in the majority of cases these activities require very little involvement from the higher functions of the brain. There is a growing body of anecdotal and experimental evidence that shows poorer performance on multiple tasks done concurrently versus the same tasks performed sequentially. In fact, for quite some time, researchers have shown that dealing with multiple streams of information at once is a real problem for our limited brains.

Yet, most businesses seem to demand or reward multitasking behavior. And damagingly, the multitasking epidemic now seems to be the norm in the home as well.

[div class=attrib]From the WSJ:[end-div]

In the few minutes it takes to read this article, chances are you’ll pause to check your phone, answer a text, switch to your desktop to read an email from the boss’s assistant, or glance at the Facebook or Twitter messages popping up in the corner of your screen. Off-screen, in your open-plan office, crosstalk about a colleague’s preschooler might lure you away, or a co-worker may stop by your desk for a quick question.

And bosses wonder why it is tough to get any work done.

Distraction at the office is hardly new, but as screens multiply and managers push frazzled workers to do more with less, companies say the problem is worsening and is affecting business.

While some firms make noises about workers wasting time on the Web, companies are realizing the problem is partly their own fault.

Even though digital technology has led to significant productivity increases, the modern workday seems custom-built to destroy individual focus. Open-plan offices and an emphasis on collaborative work leave workers with little insulation from colleagues’ chatter. A ceaseless tide of meetings and internal emails means that workers increasingly scramble to get their “real work” done on the margins, early in the morning or late in the evening. And the tempting lure of social-networking streams and status updates make it easy for workers to interrupt themselves.

“It is an epidemic,” says Lacy Roberson, a director of learning and organizational development at eBay Inc. At most companies, it’s a struggle “to get work done on a daily basis, with all these things coming at you,” she says.

Office workers are interrupted—or self-interrupt—roughly every three minutes, academic studies have found, with numerous distractions coming in both digital and human forms. Once thrown off track, it can take some 23 minutes for a worker to return to the original task, says Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, who studies digital distraction.

Companies are experimenting with strategies to keep workers focused. Some are limiting internal emails—with one company moving to ban them entirely—while others are reducing the number of projects workers can tackle at a time.

Last year, Jamey Jacobs, a divisional vice president at Abbott Vascular, a unit of health-care company Abbott Laboratories learned that his 200 employees had grown stressed trying to squeeze in more heads-down, focused work amid the daily thrum of email and meetings.

“It became personally frustrating that they were not getting the things they wanted to get done,” he says. At meetings, attendees were often checking email, trying to multitask and in the process obliterating their focus.

Part of the solution for Mr. Jacobs’s team was that oft-forgotten piece of office technology: the telephone.

Mr. Jacobs and productivity consultant Daniel Markovitz found that employees communicated almost entirely over email, whether the matter was mundane, such as cake in the break room, or urgent, like an equipment issue.

The pair instructed workers to let the importance and complexity of their message dictate whether to use cellphones, office phones or email. Truly urgent messages and complex issues merited phone calls or in-person conversations, while email was reserved for messages that could wait.

Workers now pick up the phone more, logging fewer internal emails and say they’ve got clarity on what’s urgent and what’s not, although Mr. Jacobs says staff still have to stay current with emails from clients or co-workers outside the group.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump, and learn more in this insightful article on multitasking over at Big Think.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Big Think.[end-div]

Cocktail Party Science and Multitasking

The hit drama Mad Men shows us that cocktail parties can be fun — colorful drinks and colorful conversations with a host of very colorful characters. Yet cocktail parties also highlight one of our limitations, the inability to multitask. We are single-threaded animals despite the constant and simultaneous bombardment for our attention from all directions, and to all our senses.

Melinda Beck over at the WSJ Health Journal summarizes recent research that shows the deleterious effects of our attempts to multitask — why it’s so hard and why it’s probably not a good idea anyway, especially while driving.

[div class=attrib]From the Wall Street Journal:[end-div]

You’re at a party. Music is playing. Glasses are clinking. Dozens of conversations are driving up the decibel level. Yet amid all those distractions, you can zero in on the one conversation you want to hear.

This ability to hyper-focus on one stream of sound amid a cacophony of others is what researchers call the “cocktail-party effect.” Now, scientists at the University of California in San Francisco have pinpointed where that sound-editing process occurs in the brain—in the auditory cortex just behind the ear, not in areas of higher thought. The auditory cortex boosts some sounds and turns down others so that when the signal reaches the higher brain, “it’s as if only one person was speaking alone,” says principle investigator Edward Chang.

These findings, published in the journal Nature last week, underscore why people aren’t very good at multitasking—our brains are wired for “selective attention” and can focus on only one thing at a time. That innate ability has helped humans survive in a world buzzing with visual and auditory stimulation. But we keep trying to push the limits with multitasking, sometimes with tragic consequences. Drivers talking on cellphones, for example, are four times as likely to get into traffic accidents as those who aren’t.

Many of those accidents are due to “inattentional blindness,” in which people can, in effect, turn a blind eye to things they aren’t focusing on. Images land on our retinas and are either boosted or played down in the visual cortex before being passed to the brain, just as the auditory cortex filters sounds, as shown in the Nature study last week. “It’s a push-pull relationship—the more we focus on one thing, the less we can focus on others,” says Diane M. Beck, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Illinois.

That people can be completely oblivious to things in their field of vision was demonstrated famously in the “Invisible Gorilla experiment” devised at Harvard in the 1990s. Observers are shown a short video of youths tossing a basketball and asked to count how often the ball is passed by those wearing white. Afterward, the observers are asked several questions, including, “Did you see the gorilla?” Typically, about half the observers failed to notice that someone in a gorilla suit walked through the scene. They’re usually flabbergasted because they’re certain they would have noticed something like that.

“We largely see what we expect to see,” says Daniel Simons, one of the study’s creators and now a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois. As he notes in his subsequent book, “The Invisible Gorilla,” the more attention a task demands, the less attention we can pay to other things in our field of vision. That’s why pilots sometimes fail to notice obstacles on runways and radiologists may overlook anomalies on X-rays, especially in areas they aren’t scrutinizing.

And it isn’t just that sights and sounds compete for the brain’s attention. All the sensory inputs vie to become the mind’s top priority.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article after the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image courtesy of Getty Images / Wall Street Journal.[end-div]