Wired and Tired: Debunking Multitasking Myths
The idea of multitasking has roots in human evolution, but research questions the basic premise that you can do multiple things at once. In these high-tech times, we have a better understanding of how multitasking really works, exposing myths about supposed tried-and-true notions and highlighting possible dangers -- though it will take some time to wean people from a long-ingrained habit.
Myth #1: Multitasking is a New Phenomenon
Each tech advance adds tasks and distractions to juggle, but the concept of multitasking has been around long before mobile devices. Monica Smith, a UCLA anthropologist, said multitasking is what makes us human. Going back millions of years, humans started to multitask when they gained the ability to walk on two feet, which freed their hands to pick fruit and throw spears. Our ancestors evolved and honed and refined these skills.
The human brain evolved too, and the cognitive function responsible for doing more than one thing at a time, Smith said, also allows for other abilities like language and an understanding of space and time. It's that development that's responsible for some of mankind's great achievements.
Myth #2: You Can Multitask Most Anything
When you multitask, you think you're doing several different things at once, but there's a problem: it's impossible. Strict multitasking involves engaging in two tasks simultaneously, but it's only possible if: 1. at least one of the tasks is so well learned that it is almost automatic -- like walking or eating, and 2. the two activities involve different types of brain processing, for example, auditory and visual, like driving and listening to the radio.
Kids can study effectively while listening to classical music, since reading and listening use different parts of the brain. But if you listen to music with lyrics, your reading comprehension significantly drops. That's because both tasks activate the brain's language center. Similarly, you can talk and watch television at the same time, but you can't carry on two conversations at once.
Researchers tested the theory. Zheng Wang, a communications professor at Ohio State University, studied people by having them look at images while talking on the phone and texting. When talking on the phone, they showed some impairment when asked to concentrate on an image. But their concentration dropped sharply when asked to focus on the photo while messaging -- both visual activities.
When you say you're multitasking, most times, you're just "task switching" -- shifting from one task to another in quick succession. You move from one to the other in a jumbled sequence, not simultaneously, and the lack of focus and attention on each task means you aren't doing any of them that well.
Myth #3: Multitasking Makes You Efficient
Multitasking, as in task-switching, is easier and often enjoyable with technology. You can't deny the rush you get when your favorite device vibrates. But jumping from distraction to distraction doesn't make us productive -- it actually does the opposite.
When students think they're multitasking, research shows they're actually shifting focus from one task to another -- but the transition is neither faster, smoother nor more efficient. The brain has to pivot and briefly orient itself between tasks. That takes about 40 percent more time than it would take to complete each task, one at a time.
In one survey, a sample of middle-school, high-school and university students lost focus, on average every three minutes, during a 15-minute study period on their computers. The number of open windows on the screen -- with programs like Facebook, e-mail and webpages -- was directly related to the length of the distraction. But kids think they need to plug-in all the time, even when doing homework. Nearly three-in-four students say they can't study without tech and two-in-five say they can't last 10 minutes without checking in. Could the constant need to connect create a "born mobile" generation who can easily navigate multiple screens, handle simultaneous text messages and send e-mails, but can't concentrate, focus or remember with clarity?
Clifford Nass, a Stanford University cognitive scientist, asked if multitasking habits are having a cumulative and lasting effect. He focused on how multitaskers fared in a famous "inattention blindness" experiment, where they were asked to count the basketball shots players made at the same time a gorilla walked across the court. The multitaskers scored well in noticing the gorilla, but lost count of the baskets, showing diminished powers of mental organization and a difficulty switching between tasks.
Myth #4: Multitasking Can't Hurt
Beyond being impossible, doing several things at once can be dangerous. Wang's research is gaining support from advocates of bans on texting while driving. If you can't complete two visual tasks at once, how does that affect the safety of our roads? That's true, no matter how capable you feel when engaging in this behavior. His project used eye-tracking technology to measure a person's gaze while looking at the two objects: one being an image, and the other being a message. The tracking results showed people look around much more than they thought -- even though they insisted they could focus.
"People's perception about how well they're doing doesn't match up with how they actually perform," he said, refuting the assertion that participants managed both tasks well. "People may believe they can effectively text and drive at the same time, and we need to make sure young people know that is not true."
The medical community is also turning to tablets and smartphones to aid nurses and doctors in their everyday work. Tech-savvy physicians, dubbed "iDoctors," multitask with gadgets to consult with patients, manage workflow, research and share alerts from other healthcare players. In the future, they'll digitally diagnose conditions and send test results. But according to the Journal of Medical Internet Research, phone calls, e-mails and face-to-face interactions interrupt doctors nearly five times an hour, and mobile devices can steal even more focus from patients. The risk of multitasking is also magnified by the "bring your own device" work trend, adding personal distractions to the mix.
Dr. John Halamka, CIO at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, helped pioneer the use of electronic medical records and handheld devices. But he's raising the red flag that hospitals and doctors need strategies to cope with the distractions that come with the use of technology. A little over a year ago, he wrote a case study highlighting problems of medical multitasking. According to the report, a team of doctors decided to stop giving a 56-year-old man a blood thinner, but as a resident entered the order into her smartphone, she received a text about a party. Too busy composing her RSVP, she never completed the drug order. The patient nearly died, requiring open-heart surgery.
"I think all of us who use mobile devices have what I will call continuous partial attention," he said. He added that healthcare workers are the same as everyone else, but distractions, while minor for others, are often life or death for doctors and nurses.
"Unless all of us declare that the multi-tasking emperor has no clothes, continuous partial attention will only get worse," he said. Multitasking can empower you, but remember the myths. And ask yourself if you're using the most productive and safest way to do things? Chances are, you're not. ♦
Categories: Beyond Technology