Monday, October 26, 2009

Multitasking Multitangle

From the Boston Globe Health Science pages today, an article on how multitasking actually saps our efficiency. Tara Ballenger writes "MultiTangle: As we cram more tasks into less time, frustration grows, quality of work drops, and our brains take a hit." Researchers are finding evidence that switching between tasks actually decreases efficiency by a good deal. Every time the brain is required to change tasks, even between something as apparently "auto-pilot" as texting, and walking, the brain takes time to move between the jobs.

At her job in a busy Boston public relations firm, 25-year-old Lillian Dunlap spends her days tending to the needs of clients. She fields emergency e-mails for one business while writing press releases for another and juggling phone calls from everyone. In today’s corporate culture and competitive job market, the person willing to take on the most gets ahead, she said.

“Every client has 10,000 things they need done, and with all the new technology, we’re expected to always be on call,’’ said Dunlap.

Researchers are discovering, however, that constantly switching tasks may be a lot less effective than it might appear.

“When you’re pushing yourself to perform two or more tasks, especially complicated tasks, it’s not beneficial. It’s extremely inefficient,’’ said David Meyer, a psychologist specializing in cognitive neuroscience at the University of Michigan.

In a 2001 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, Meyer and his colleagues found that people who toggle between tasks lose valuable time in the transitions. The brain must refocus each time it switches activities, and the more complicated the task, the more time it takes to refocus. The time loss can be as little as tenths of a second per switch, but that can add up over the course of a day in which countless e-mails, texts, instant messages, face-to-face interactions, and any number of hands-on tasks involve such switches.

For the really hard stuff - writing important documents, expressing complex ideas, performing calculations - the time it takes for the brain to refocus stretches much longer, said Meyer.

“If you’re right in the middle of a paragraph and get interrupted, it could take hours to reconstruct what was in your mind and re-create the awareness you had before the interruption,’’ he said. (snip)

The very act of multitasking adds to the drain on the brain’s finite supply of real-time resources. Only a few things - breathing, heart rate regulation - can be done without pressuring working memory, said Vanderberg.

“If you can’t do it in your sleep, it is taking up cognitive energy,’’ she said.

For today’s children and young adults growing up in a multitasking world, surrounded by hands-free phones, portable personal computers, and enough Wi-Fi hotspots to stay linked in virtually anywhere, it might seem that young people would be more successful than older adults at multitasking, simply because they’ve had more practice.

In fact, the opposite may be true.

Researchers at Stanford University found that people who regularly juggle various electronic activities - like checking text messages while writing an e-mail and indulging in the latest episode of “Desperate Housewives’’ - actually had the highest deficit in skills that would make them good multitaskers, according to a study published in the August edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They couldn’t, for instance, block unimportant information or use short-term memory to switch between two tasks as well as their counterparts who chose to consume one media stream at a time.

Basically, they are distracted.
Ballenger goes on to explain how insidious the distraction becomes; you don't realize it's there. People are so used to multitasking that they don't even realize that their mind is wandering, thinking about something else. When I read this article, I immediately thought of a conversation I just had recently with firm librarians about the life in the firm: everybody is expected to be on call every moment. E-mails are announced with chimes and people are expected to check them as they arrive in case it needs immediate attention.

What are the partners thinking? How inefficiently must these people be working? And then, they are constantly in touch on their Blackberries or I-phones, and being interrupted in this other way. So nobody reads in silence for long periods any more. Nobody is concentrating unless they stay at work after say, 9 PM. Ballenger notes, however, that the multitasking is becoming part of the culture, so that many young people are so saturated in multitasking that they are constantly switching from one thing to another, even when they don't have to. This is not a trend I think will bode well for deep thinking.

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