Friday, January 13, 2017

Don't Multitask!

Long time readers of this blog know that multitasking is bad for you. When you try to do multiple tasks at the same time you lose focus and become less efficient. Apparently it even damages your brain.

Multitasking is as bad for you as multiculturalism.

For links to my previous posts, see here and here and here. One notes that they begin nearly eight years ago. For once I do not feel like I am late to the party.

Anyway, Travis Bradbury makes the case against multitasking:

You may have heard that multitasking is bad for you, but studies show that it kills your performance and may even damage your brain. Every time you multitask you aren't just harming your performance in the moment; you may very well be damaging an area of your brain that's critical to your future success at work.

Research conducted at Stanford University found that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. The researchers found that people who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one job to another as well as those who complete one task at a time.

Yet, we all know people who say that they are great at multitasking. Happily enough, the research has evaluated their claims:

But what if some people have a special gift for multitasking? The Stanford researchers compared groups of people based on their tendency to multitask and their belief that it helps their performance. They found that heavy multitaskers — those who multitask a lot and feel that it boosts their performance — were actually worse at multitasking than those who like to do a single thing at a time. The frequent multitaskers performed worse because they had more trouble organizing their thoughts and filtering out irrelevant information, and they were slower at switching from one task to another.

Why is this so? Because, Bradbury explains, the brain can only focus on one thing at once. Try to make to focus of two or more things at the same time and it will malfunction.

Not only that, but if you multitask too much you will lose a few IQ points. Say what?

Research also shows that, in addition to slowing you down, multitasking lowers your IQ. A study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they'd expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night. IQ drops of 15 points for multitasking men lowered their scores to the average range of an 8-year-old child.

So the next time you're writing your boss an email during a meeting, remember that your cognitive capacity is being diminished to the point that you might as well let an 8-year-old write it for you.

That ought to be the definitive, last word on multitasking. It probably won't be.


Ares Olympus said...

Indeed, the scientific research appears to have complete agreement on the subject.

And it is modern technology that enables our hyper-connectivity that can leave distraction and novelty always within reach. And there seems to be no evidence things are not going to keep getting worse, as every year we gain new ways to divide our attention away from what's right in front of us.

An open question is how employers should try to "help" employees stay on task, but without resorting to actual spying.

I imagine the "killer app" of the future will allow us to "spy on ourselves" and give us feedback, like Siri or Alexa, and even act like out parental roles limiting our "screen time", or set up "roadblocks" against easy access.

I wondered what our ADHD president-elect had to say on the subject and I found a 2 minute video with Ivanka at least, calling out the perils of multitasking, and admitting it is her generation's bane. Ivanka Trump on Multi-Tasking

And the ultimate "cost" to multitasking arises in activities like driving and texting, where people refuse to admit their activities are dangerous. At least here, because other people's lives are at risk, laws are appropriate to punish people who behave foolishly. Texting While Driving Cause Car Accidents

Perhaps someday just like drunk drivers having to blow into a breathalyzer to start their engine, texting violators will have to turn off their phone to be allowed to start their car.

Really, the idea of a "Personal assistant" seems like it'll be the "next big thing", having ever better AI to give us feedback on our decisions. If your spouse tells you to turn off your phone, you might be offended, but if your phone says so, and you told it to tell you, then you won't take it personally.

Of course all that can go too far and make us have even less will power when our PAs are not with us. But as long as we live in an overly stimulated world, using technology to limit technology seems appropriate. And hopefully we won't need such crutches for ordinary life, when we can escape back to the world where only physical things and people right in front of you are calling for your attention.

Its all amazing, not just multitasking, but ever greater control we have, even like older things like electric lights have distorted our lives in ways that people 100 years ago never had to worry about.

I recall essayist Wendell Berry said he only writes under daylight, which seemed an admirable act of will. His excuses was a hatred of dependence upon coal, and the destroyed environments caused by our need for it. Its easy to get self-righteous for anyone who sets personal limits for individual or worldly health, and think everyone should do the same thing. But it is nice when the libertarians can win and we can all have the freedom to decide on our own limits, because science says its good for us, or because we discover our lives are becoming enslaved by the tools that help us.

Baloo said...

is it possible that women are more able than men to multitask? Mothers with small children just about have to be able to do more than one thing at a time. Men, evolutionarily speaking, are best at hunting, which is a single project that one concentrates on to the exclusion of everything else.

Trigger Warning said...

People multitask all the time. There's even an old joke about being able to chew gum and walk. Walking upright is an incredibly complex task.

What is actually at issue here is whether a task has been "automated" via repetition and practice, or requires low-bandwidth central processing. Kahneman would call this distinction "fast-brain" and "slow-brain". To get an idea of fast-brain possibilities, watch a professional juggler juggling several different types of objects. Slow-brain tasks cannot be multitasked without significant performance degradation. We've known this since data from basic dual-task cognitive experimental research became available in the early 70's.

Ares Olympus said...

Trigger Warning said... Slow-brain tasks cannot be multitasked without significant performance degradation.

Indeed, and one "slow-brain" task is the ability driving a car at 60+ miles per hour, a necesarily "fast-brain" instinct because things come at us too quick to react to individually, but we don't necessarily know all the unexpected things that can happen or what we'll do until they happen. And then a few second delay between new information and focused attention on that new information is the difference between life and death.

Or if you're juggling, you know where the balls are, know their weight and feel, know where your hands are, your instincts know the laws of physics, and hour of practice make juggling automatic, so even drunk people can juggle. I actually remember a follow student demonstrating this at a party when I was at college. Even he was impressed by his skill, all the while having a conversation as well.

But if the expected "laws of physics" started change, like perhaps a strong gusty wind, a juggler, drunk or not, suddenly will have to turn off his autopilot, and concentrate on the new variability applied, and the drunk or distracted juggler will be less likely to adapt fast enough.

And it makes sense that listening and conversation can also be "fast-brain" automatic responses, so you can focus on reading the newspaper while listening to someone on the phone, and instinctively insert agreeable interjections like "uh huh" and the speaker doesn't necessarily know if you're paying attention, except by inserting something random like "We're going to have a baby" and seeing how much delay it takes for those words to sink in.

Probably in part this is also where the "Live in moment" ideals come from as well since the mind can be so preoccupied by your own inner states and fantasies, that the external world literally can't get through.

It is interesting also to consider the difference between intelligence and mere repetition. Stuart says that you become less intelligent when you're multitasking, but that doesn't mean you necessary feel less intelligent, or even look less intelligent. A person who has a lifetime of experience can offer "gut level" opinions about any subject and feel very intelligent, and even look intelligent to people who are not as fast, but the real test of intelligence is not how fast you can come up with a retort to a debate point, but how open you are to adjusting or keeping open your opinions as new information arises.

Probably Iain McGilchrist's "Divided brain" talks also apply, where he sees the right brain as looking at the bigger picture and inconsistencies, and the left brain focusing on specific details, and the left brain helps us to make models of reality that can replace reality, but at a cost of accuracy. RSA ANIMATE: The Divided Brain

So what makes multitasking possible is that we can anticipate predictable parts of the future, and then our attention can be redirected to other less predictable parts. But sometimes the "predictable" parts of reality we think we see, are not really there, and we can filter out contrary information for a long time, and not use our slow thinking to look at the evidence actually before us.

It also makes sense that a world filled with constant distraction, like high stimulation media, can enable people to avoid thinking about anything that they really don't want to think about. And then "staying stupid" is a feature, not a bug.