At work the other day, while taking a 911 call, calling a police unit on the radio, checking an address on a map, and following an approaching storm system on a TV screen, I remembered an article I read recently:
That multitaskers pay a mental price.
Which explains a lot.
So when I got off work I did some web searching about multitasking, which is easy to do on my new iPhone while cooking breakfast, talking to friends on the same phone, and watching the morning news.
The Stanford study focuses specifically on media multitaskers, but it turns out their results apply to pretty much everyone. We’ve all familiar with media multitaskers, of course. You’ve probably seen videos of people just walking while texting, resulting in the imprints of their foreheads on glass doors, or a fall into a fountain. You might have been about to call in a drunk driver when you suddenly realized the driver was texting, or possibly updating his Twitter to complain about the idiot driver swerving in front of him – who’s busy posting to his Facebook about the moron tailgating him.
It doesn’t have to be high tech, though. One time I was following a lady who was swerving all over the road. When she pulled into a turn lane I got beside her and saw she was eating a Dairy Queen Blizzard.
It looked delicious, by the way.
I drove on, and about ten minutes later I heard an area fire department get paged out to a car accident – in the same direction the lady turned. When I checked later, sure enough, it was her. (She wasn’t badly hurt, but probably ended up with a Blizzard pattern on her shirt.)
Maybe she should have had her dessert in the parking lot?
People who are texting, e-mailing, instant messaging, and watching TV at the same time – and yes, I’ve seen it – are distracted by just about everything, according to the study. In fact, according to another study, their productivity goes down by about 40%. This is assuming they don’t plow their Chevy into a utility pole, which reduces productivity by 100%.
Multitaskers are generally proud of that ability, and think they’re good at it. But it turns out the brain can’t concentrate on two things at once: Instead, it must switch back and forth quickly, and the more things it switches to, the less it can concentrate. Outside distractions get more distracting, making it that much worse.
Just thinking about it can be very distracting.
Switching back and forth may take a few tenths of a second, and if you’re doing two things that aren’t all that important to productivity – or safety – it’s not that big of a deal. Do it a lot while also doing important stuff and it can cause mental blocks and affect performance. This is why we should take laptops and cell phones away from Congressmen.
It turns out, according to the research, that multitaskers don’t have a specific skill to be proud of; on the contrary, they suck at everything. They don’t remember as well, they’re distracted more easily, and they can’t switch back and forth as quickly as other people. They can’t keep things separate in their minds, can’t filter out irrelevant information, and …
What were we talking about?
Oh, yeah: I seriously did just describe Congress! This explains everything. All you have to do is add that they think spending more money will balance a budget, and you’ve actually described both chambers of Congress, and the White House. Give them each a Dilly Bar and the entire government will collapse.
On the other hand, the researchers conclude that doing less will accomplish more, and that concept hasn’t worked out well for Congress, either.
I believe it was Henry David Thoreau who advocated simplifying life down to the five necessities: food, shelter, clothing, fuel, and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 20-something daughter. I think that last explains why he ended up leaving Walden Pond in a hurry.
(I just checked the internet while texting my wife and watching Mythbusters, and it turns out Emerson really did have daughters. However, I’ve seen photos of Thoreau, and I don’t think they’d be interested.)
In any case, Thoreau might not be the best example of simplifying. Why? Because he was an author, poet, philosopher, abolitionist, naturalist, tax resister, development critic, surveyor, historian, and transcendentalist.
So maybe he was the multitasker of his age. If smart phones had been around at the time, his head would have exploded. Or he’d have walked into Walden Pond.