I don’t know if you caught it the other night when you were watching the news while skimming your email, checking your twitter and RSS feeds, and updating your Facebook status, but there was an interesting story about multitasking. Silly me, who actually watches the news anymore? Anyways, much of the recent buzz on this endemic behavior (among the technologically savvy) is not good. Multitasking is a paradox of sorts – where we tend to romanticize and overestimate our ability to split attention among multiple competing demands. The belief goes something like this: “I’ve got a lot to do and if I work on all my tasks simultaneously I’ll get them done faster.” However, what most of us fail to realize is that when we split our attention, what we are actually doing is dividing an already limited and finite capacity in a way that hinders overall performance. And some research is showing that chronic multitasking may have deleterious affects on one’s ability to process information even when one is not multitasking (Nass, 2009).
Advances in computer technology seem to fuel this behavior. If you do a Google search on multitasking you will get a mix of information on the technological wonders of machines that can multitask (AKA computers) mixed with news regarding how bad media multitasking is for you.
Think about it. There has been increasing pressure on the workforce to be more productive and gains in productivity have been made lockstep with increases in personal computing power. Applications have been developed on the back of the rising tide of computer capacity, thus making human multitasking more possible. These advances include faster microprocessors, increased RAM, increased monitor size, the internet itself, browsers that facilitate the use of multiple tabs, relatively inexpensive computers with sufficient power to keep open email, word processing programs, Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and YouTube. Compound these tools with hardware that allows you to do these things on the go. No longer are you tethered to the desktop computer with an Ethernet cable. Wifi and 3G connectivity allow all the above activities almost anywhere via use of a smart phone, laptop, iPad, or notebook computer. Also in the mix are devices such as bluetooth headsets and other headphones that offer hands free operation of telephones.
Currently, technology offers one the ability to divide one’s attention in ways inconceivable only a decade ago. The ease of doing so has resulted in the generalization of this behavior across settings and situations including talking on cell phones while driving, texting while driving, texting while engaged in a face to face personal interactions, and even cooking dinner while talking on the phone. Some of these behaviors are dangerous, some rude, and all likely lead to inferior outcomes.
Don’t believe it? If you don’t, you are likely among the worst skilled of those who multitask. “Not me!” you may claim. Well research has shown that those who routinely multitask are also the most confident in their ability to do so (Nass, 2009). But when you look at the products of these “confidently proficient” multitaskers, you find the poorest outcomes.
Multitasking involves shifting attention from one task to another, refocusing attention, sustaining attention, and exercising ongoing judgment about the pertinence and salience of various competing demands. Doing this successfully is exceptionally difficult and is likely well beyond the capacity of most typical human beings. Our brains can only generally concentrate on one task at a time, and as such, multitasking necessitates devoting shorter periods of time on dissimilar tasks. As a result, overall effectiveness, on all tasks is reduced.
Researchers at the University of Michigan Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory, including Professor David E. Meyer, point out that the act of switching focus itself has deleterious effects. When you switch from task A to task B you lose time in making the transition and the completion time of the transition itself increases with the degree of complexity of the task involved. Depending on how often you transition between stimuli, you can waste as much as 40% of your productive time just in task switching (APA, 2006).
Shorter periods of focus reduce overall time on task and each transition reduces this time further. Dr. Glenn Wilson at the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London in 2005 discovered that his subjects experienced a 10-point fall in their IQ when distracted by incoming email and phone calls. This effect size was “more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana” and was similar to the effects of losing a night’s sleep (BBC, 2005).
As for the negative long term affects of multitasking, Dr. Nass noted that:
“We studied people who were chronic multitaskers, and even when we did not ask them to do anything close to the level of multitasking they were doing, their cognitive processes were impaired. So basically, they are worse at most of the kinds of thinking not only required for multitasking but what we generally think of as involving deep thought.”
Nass (2009) has found that these habitual multitaskers have chronic filtering difficulties, impaired capacity to manage working memory, and slower task switching abilities. One must be careful to avoid the Illusion of Cause in this situation. Correlation is not causation and we must avoid inferring that multitasking causes these cognitive declines. The reverse may be true or other undetected variables may cause both.
Much of the research in this area is in its infancy and thus limited in scope and depth, so it is prudent to be a bit skeptical about whether or not multitasking is bad for you. But with regard to the efficacy of multitasking – when you look at the issue from an anecdotal perspective, apply the tangentially related evidence logically, and then consider the data, you have to conclude that multitasking on important jobs is not a good idea. If you have important tasks to accomplish, it is best to focus your attention on one task at a time and to minimize distractions. To do so, avoid temptation to text, tweet, watch TV, check your email, talk on the phone, instant message, chat on Facebook, Skype, or otherwise divide you attention. If you believe employing these other distractions helps you do better, you are deluding yourself and falling victim to the reinforcement systems that make multitasking enjoyable. Socializing, virtually or otherwise, is more pleasurable than the arduous processes involved in truly working or studying.
You can likely apply the same principles to plumbing, cooking, housework, woodworking, etc. The key to success, it seems is to FOCUS on one task at a time, FINISH the job, and then move one. You’ll save time, be more efficient, and do a better job! Remember – FOCUS & FINISH!
American Psychological Association. (March 20, 2006). Multitasking: Switching Costs.
BBC News (2005). ‘Infomania’ worse than marijuana. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4471607.stm
Keim, B. (2009). Multitasking muddles Brains, even when the computer is off. Wired Science News for Your Neurons. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/08/multitasking/#ixzz11LfOUISp
Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. v. 106, no. 37. http://www.pnas.org/content/106/37/15583
Nass, C. (August 28, 2009). Talk of the Nation: National Public Radio: Multitasking May Not Mean Higher Productivity. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112334449
Seldon, B. (2009). Multitasking, marijuana, managing? http://www.management-issues.com/2009/9/21/opinion/multitasking–marijuana–managing.asp
How one chooses to live one’s life is complicated by the uncertainties of tomorrow. Often there is an internal tug of war between the interests de jour and those that will be realized tomorrow. Due to the wonders of compounded interest, it is wise to save as much as you can – as early as you can. However, another powerful reality is that there may be no tomorrow – or a reality that tomorrow may manifest itself in unimaginable ways.
I am surrounded by reminders that saving your better days for tomorrow is unwise. Over the last decade, I have witnessed numerous loved ones and colleagues ravaged by disease. Most of them died, but those who survived are essentially incapacitated. They live-on, but are unable to experience life as they would prefer. Of those that are no longer with us, some were quite young and some were reaching or had just reached retirement age. Most lived their lives well, some did not: regardless, their peril certainly raised the value of their time, and they certainly had much left to live for.
Then there are the statistical realities of threats that my loved ones and I face. These threats include cancer and car accidents and even the more improbable, but not impossible, threats associated with catstrophic volcanism and asteroid strikes. The latter two events may seem to be ridiculous considerations, but the fact of the matter is that both are likely in near geological time. Some facts to contemplate:
Volcanoes -In a Discovery Channel piece on the supervolcano at Yellowstone it was indicated that “A modern full-force Yellowstone eruption could kill millions, directly and indirectly, and would make every volcano in recorded human history look minor by comparison. Fortunately, “super-eruptions” from supervolcanoes have occurred on a geologic time scale so vast that a study by the Geological Society of London declared an eruption on the magnitude of Yellowstone’s biggest (the Huckleberry Ridge eruption 2.1 million years ago) occurs somewhere on the planet only about once every million years.” It was also reported that “But at this hot spot’s current position under Yellowstone there have been three massive eruptions: 2.1 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago. While those eruptions have been spaced roughly 800,000 and 660,000 years apart, the three events are not enough statistically to declare this an eruption pattern…” The risk is low but the threat is very real.
Asteroids – Although small (relatively harmless) bodies frequently enter the Earth’s atmosphere, it is estimated that 1 km (0.62 mi) in diameter asteroids hit our planet on average every 500,000 years. Larger asteroids (5 km or 3 mi) strike Earth approximately once every ten million years. Even more rare are the large body impacts (10 km or 6.2 mi). The last known major impact was the dinosaur killing KT extinction event 65 million years ago. Although it is unlikely that an Earth shattering asteroid will end or drastically alter my life – were it to happen – life as we know it would end. And we are past due. According to NASA “Statistically, the greatest danger is from an NEO [Near Earth Object] with about 1 million megatons energy (roughly 2 km in diameter). On average, one of these collides with the Earth once or twice per million years, producing a global catastrophe that would kill a substantial (but unknown) fraction of the Earth’s human population. Reduced to personal terms, this means that you have about one chance in 40,000 of dying as a result of a collision.”
I am careful not to “blow” these threats out of proportion, but they have figured into my thinking. Taking all this into consideration, I find it prudent to plan for tomorrow (by saving for retirement), but I find it equally important to live for today. Thus tomorrow, my wife and I jet off to Europe for a two week exploration of Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome. This is something that my wife has dreamed of her entire life. We are relatively young and able-bodied and can afford it (kind of): putting it off any longer seems unwise. Next Friday we will be in Venice, but I think I’ll wait to make my next post until the weekend when I’m in Florence where I’ll post a picture of Galileo’s middle finger.
Perhaps the most valuable asset we have is Time. Its value is set by the fact that we have a finite supply of it. Equally influential is the reality that there are multiple competing demands for it. These factors contend with one another, the outcome often being that aching feeling that we just don’t have enough of it. Whether it is enough time for sleep, fun, socialization, reading, work, we generally wish we had more of it.
The finite nature of time is determined by the cosmological realities that there are only 24 hours in a day and 365 days in a year. Our biological limiters include fatigue, the related need for sleep, and the ultimate reality of our impending mortality. The contentious demands that vie for this precious asset include the all too real certainty that most of us have to work in order to survive. Also heavy, are the demands that I refer to as life maintenance tasks: you know, like shopping for food, cooking it, washing the dishes, cleaning and maintaining the home, washing the clothes, paying the bills, etc. etc. These demands, coupled with raising children put a tight and limiting strangle-hold on the typical parent’s time.
It is unnecessary to devote too much time to this discussion as the scenario is all too familiar to most of us. It is the implication of this reality that deserves precious thought and consideration. It is important because we can’t and won’t get a refund. We can’t get time back! The choices we make each day pertaining to how we spend our time deserve much more thought than we give them. The time we are very, very fortunate to have, deserves the respect of forethought and proactive contemplation; otherwise, we are likely to squander it.
How is time squandered? This, I suppose, is a matter of perspective. One’s perspective is shaped by the choices made in living out one’s life. How are your priorities set? Do you prioritize work [making a living] over, for example, time with family? And do you prioritize life maintenance tasks over exercise? There is a transient hierarchical list of priorities we all set, and the reality is that those values further down on the list are sacrificed to accomplish the higher order priorities, regardless of the true value of each priority. The question that begs to be asked is “To what degree are you an active participant in setting your priorities?” Too often I imagine, the urgent pressing “demands du jour’ take precedence over even highly valued ones.
It is not only profoundly important to take an active roll in establishing one’s own priorities, it is equally important to respect the time of other individuals. This necessitates striking a careful balance, but, that respect is manifested by being punctual, following through on commitments (keeping one’s appointments), and considering the person’s own priorities and demands when tasking that individual. Tardiness and failure to keep commitments is, in effect, valuing one’s own time over the value of those who have agreed to devote their limited and precious time to you. With this in mind, it is fair to conclude that failure to keep such commitments is egregiously disrespectful, even selfish. You are essentially saying, when you are late, that your time is more important than the person’s time with whom you have made a commitment. The truth in this notion is demonstrated by the anger and downright resentment you likely feel when your time is squandered by another. Time is a two way street.
So, how do we give Time its due respect, be it yours or another’s? First, you have to look closely at your priorities; and task your life with the ever present notion that you will NOT get a refund. The time you have is a limited and precious commodity with many competing demands. You have the choice: in fact, a powerful cognitive capacity, to prioritize or reprioritize your time. Ask yourself, “When this hour, when this day, weekend, or week, is up, will I have spent my time well?” Ask yourself this, knowing that when it is up, you can’t get it back. Will you have the feeling that the expenditure of this precious asset was really worth it. Or was it squandered? Keep in mind that you never really know when your time will be up – in fact it is unwise to assume that you still have a full lifetime to live. Each day is precious and it brings you another day closer to your ultimate demise.
In your dealings with others, apply the golden rule. Show respect for the limited time other’s have and demand respect from them for your’s. However, if you do not proactively prioritize your time, DO NOT assume that others are likewise (for the lack of a better word) negligent.
It IS important to devote time to important tasks. Work, life maintenance tasks, these are important – actually very important. So too are, exercise, fun, relaxation, reading, learning, adventure, companionship, travel, and novelty. The urgency of the former is a tyrannical should that minimizes and often overshadows the importance of the latter. Give the latter their due respect and proactively prioritize them, OR they will fall victim to the deceptively “more pressing demands.” Give priority to, or at least make a commitment to devoting a good portion of your time to those tasks that will build and expand your mind and strengthen your body. Challenge yourself through adventure to be more. Expect more from life than to be a worker drone tasking away until death comes. Dare not to look back with regret at the lost and irretrievable time that you squandered.