Tag: Multitasking

Daniel Kahneman Explains Multitasking

Can we do several things at once?

You can do several things at once, but only if they are easy and undemanding.

What happens when we’re trying to do things that are not so simple?

It is the mark of effortful activities that they interfere with each other, which is why it is difficult or impossible to conduct several at once. You could not compute the product of 17 x 24 while making a left turn into dense traffic, and you certainly should not try.

Intuitively we know this

Everyone has some awareness of the limited capacity of attention, and our social behavior makes allowances for these limitations. When the driver of a car is overtaking a truck on a narrow road, for example, adult passengers quite sensibly stop talking. They know that distracting the driver is not a good idea, and they also suspect that he is temporarily deaf and will not hear what they say.

Switching between tasks is costly:

frequent switching of tasks and speeded-up mental work are not intrinsically pleasurable, and that people avoid them when possible.

How to improve our performance?

The often-used phrase ‘pay attention’ is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail.

But not too much focus

Intense focusing on a task can make people effectively blind, even to stimuli that normally attract attention. The most dramatic demonstration was offered by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons in their book The Invisible Gorilla. They constructed a short film (video below) of two teams passing basket­balls, one team wearing white shirts, the other wearing black. The viewers of the film are instructed to count the number of passes made by the white team, ignoring the black players.

This task is difficult and completely ab­sorbing. Halfway through the video, a woman wearing a gorilla suit appears, crosses the court, thumps her chest, and moves on. The gorilla is in view for 9 seconds.

Is that surprising?

Many thousands of people have seen the video, and about half of them do not notice anything unusual. It is the counting task-and especially the instruction to ignore one of the teams-that causes the blindness. No one who watches the video without that task would miss the gorilla. Seeing and orienting are automatic functions of System 1, but they depend on the allocation of some attention to the relevant stimulus. The authors note that the most remarkable observation of their study is that people find its results very surprising. Indeed, the viewers who fail to see the gorilla are initially sure that it was not there – they cannot imagine missing such a striking event. The gorilla study illustrates two important facts about our minds: we can be blind to the obvious, and we are also blind to our blindness.

Via Thinking, Fast and Slow

Still curious? Try reading The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.

The Myth of Multitasking: Why the Key to Better Work is Developing Forgotten Skills

Of course you can do more than one thing at once. The catch is you can’t do more more than one thing at once that requires concentration. You can walk and chew gum, but you can’t write an email and a report at the same time.

When you’re doing two things at once that are cognitively demanding, what you’re really doing is switching back and forth very quickly from one task to another.

The brain is a pretty smooth operator when it knows what direction to head. Transitioning from one task to another, however, dramatically reduces its horsepower.

There is a mental cost—called a switching cost—to all of this multitasking. But that’s not all it makes deep thinking impossible.

Steven Yantis, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins, says:

In addition to the switch cost, each time you switch away from a task and back again, you have to recall where you were in that task, what you were thinking about. If the tasks are complex, you may well forget some aspect of what you were thinking about before you switched away, which may require you to revisit some aspect of the task you had already solved (for example, you may have to re-read the last paragraph you’d been reading). Deep thinking about a complex topic can become nearly impossible.

Multitasking ensures the brain is operating sub-optimally.

When you try to do two or more cognitively demanding things at once, it’s as if you have a 1000 h.p. motor (your brain) but you’re throttling is so you only get 100 h.p. of output.

There is a difference between the appearance of being busy—busywork—and actually moving the needle. Attempting to do more things may signal to others how busy you are, but if you care about actual results, you need to do fewer things better.

Our most valuable mental habits—things like deep and focused thought—must be learned through concentrated practice. This is a skill we’re starting to lose as more and more of our time gets fragmented away into small and smaller increments thanks to screens. Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brain, comments on his blog:

Our most valuable mental habits – the habits of deep and focused thought – must be learned, and the way we learn them is by practicing them, regularly and attentively. And that’s what our continuously connected, constantly distracted lives are stealing from us: the encouragement and the opportunity to practice reflection, introspection, and other contemplative modes of thought. Even formal research is increasingly taking the form of “power browsing,” according to a 2008 University College London study, rather than attentive and thorough study.

Patricia Greenfield, a professor of developmental psychology at UCLA, warns that our growing use of screens appears to weaken our “higher-order cognitive processes,” including “abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.”

Busywork leads to overwork and sub-optimal outputs. Busywork is a psychological signal to others (and ourselves) that we’re needed. That we’re important. After-all, look how busy I am. This delusion is the reason we take on so many things and fail to say no. This delusion keeps us so busy that we’re not learning new things or even getting better at what we already do. This delusion inhibits us from deriving meaning in our work and our lives. This delusion keeps us from understanding how the world works and adapting to the changing reality.

The world is a competitive place. That means we have to learn how to do difficult things — things that other people value, things other people can’t do. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. What we really need to develop is not so much the specific traits that will be valued as much as a system to constantly reinvent ourselves and adapt.

This is the hard part and in an odd way, we need to go backwards to go forward. We need to develop skills we’ve once had and lost: The ability to read better, the ability to make better decisions, the ability to focus, and strategies to make sure we’re not consumed by busywork. These are the skills that will enable us to have quality ideas that other people don’t have. These are the foundational skills that underpin adaptability.

 

Multitasking: The Costs of Switching From One Task to Another

You may think that as you juggle emails, my-book, twitter, google, work, life, the phone and casual web surfing that you’re really doing all of that stuff at once, but what you’re really doing is quickly switching constantly between tasks. And switching carries a cognitive cost.

Steven Yantis, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at Johns Hopkins, says:

In addition to the switch cost, each time you switch away from a task and back again, you have to recall where you were in that task, what you were thinking about. If the tasks are complex, you may well forget some aspect of what you were thinking about before you switched away, which may require you to revisit some aspect of the task you had already solved (for example, you may have to re-read the last paragraph you’d been reading). Deep thinking about a complex topic can become nearly impossible.

What if I told you that some people (singletaskers) claim that our most valuable mental habits—things like deep and focused thought—must be learned through concentrated practice.

Nicolas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing To Our Brain, comments on his blog:

The fact that people who fiddle with cell phones drive poorly shouldn’t make us less concerned about the cognitive effects of media distractions; it should make us more concerned.

And then there’s this: “It’s not as if habits of deep reflection, thorough research and rigorous reasoning ever came naturally to people.” Exactly. And that’s another cause for concern. Our most valuable mental habits – the habits of deep and focused thought – must be learned, and the way we learn them is by practicing them, regularly and attentively. And that’s what our continuously connected, constantly distracted lives are stealing from us: the encouragement and the opportunity to practice reflection, introspection, and other contemplative modes of thought. Even formal research is increasingly taking the form of “power browsing,” according to a 2008 University College London study, rather than attentive and thorough study. Patricia Greenfield, a professor of developmental psychology at UCLA, warned in a Science article last year that our growing use of screen-based media appears to be weakening our “higher-order cognitive processes,” including “abstract vocabulary, mindfulness, reflection, inductive problem solving, critical thinking, and imagination.”

The High Cost of Distractions

We tend to think that other people get distracted but not us. We’re different. We’re better than average. We can do more than one thing at a time and still be amazing.

Not so.

The always-on world of 24/7 bits and bytes is leaving an impact. While we cling to the illusion that we’re more productive, in reality, we’re not. Distractions eat time. And more importantly they create an environment where we shallow think.

Here is an excerpt from Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, where author David Rock discusses this in more detail.

Distractions are everywhere. And with the always-on technologies of today, they take a heavy toll on productivity. One study found that office distractions eat an average 2.1 hours a day. Another study, published in October 2005, found that employees spent an average of 11 minutes on a project before being distracted. After an interruption it takes them 25 minutes to return to the original task, if they do at all. People switch activities every three minutes, either making a call, speaking with someone in their cubicle, or working on a document.

But that’s not all. Distractions are impacting our ability to focus. And focus is how we use second-order thinking. Rock writes:

Distractions are not just frustrating; they can be exhausting. By the time you get back to where you were, your ability to stay focused goes down even further as you have even less glucose available now. Change focus ten times an hour (one study showed people in offices did so as much as 20 times an hour), and your productive thinking time is only a fraction of what’s possible. Less energy equals less capacity to understand, decide, recall, memorize, and inhibit. The result could be mistakes on important tasks. Or distractions can cause you to forget good ideas and lose valuable insights. Having a great idea and not being able to remember it can be frustrating, like an itch you can’t scratch, yet another distraction to manage.

Maybe open-plan offices are not such a good idea after all. Not only do we do more work, but we do our best work when we’re distraction free.

***

If you enjoyed this article you’ll also like:

In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed — This article explores our cultural desire for speed and its consequences. Slow, it turns out, is the best way to increase understanding and avoid problems.

How to Survive in an Open Office — The author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain, offers advice on how to survive in an open office.

 

12