Chapter 5 of It’s a Jungle in There recommends that an entrepreneur be a multi-tasker. Some activities can be completed simultaneously, such as listening to a podcast and exercising. However, for cognitive tasks, divided attention is merely task-switching. That is, the person is not actually accomplishing two things at once, but one is rapidly switching between two different activities. The high rate of accidents seen with individuals who are attempting to drive and text demonstrates the difficulty of accomplishing two cognitive tasks at the same time.
The human brain cannot “multi-task” just as most computers cannot. [Multi-threaded computers do process things at the same time, which is both wonderful and kind of scary]. Computers can task-switch really fast and pay no penalty as they switch, but people do.
The penalty for biologically-based intelligence is attentional inertia. When we switch, some of the attention is still focused on the older task. The time spent between task-switching can be relatively rapid and yield little loss of productivity if the cognitive load is small. Chess masters can play multiple games at the same time because, for them, each game is actually a relatively simple task.
As an example, for short-term task switching the delay can be up to 27 seconds for simple verbal actions when driving. Typical interruptions have long-term consequences. The exact figure is probably not obtainable, but the data is clear that we are not computers – we pay the price for distractions and task switching.
How about even more complicated cognitive tasks? Activities, especially those requiring high cognitive activity, take some significant time to return back to their previous level of efficiency. Since it takes time for human brains to recover from task switching/distraction, with each interruption, we lose time and focus, and it takes us time to recover. For more complicated tasks, some estimate 23 minutes and 15 seconds to recover from a distraction. Others identify 10-minute effort to get “back on track.” Assume that with each one it takes 5 to 15 minutes to get back to where you were (full speed ahead, making progress). The more interruptions, the worse it gets. Eventually, we don’t do either task very well. In reality, if they come more often than 10 minutes, most likely one is actually never hitting full speed concerning focus.
In other words, if one is pondering the future of the company and designing a mission statement, it is best to stay on that task and not multi-task when phone rings, or someone else asks for your attention, or a new email shows up. The author attributes his desire and interest in multi-tasking to undiagnosed or undiscovered attention deficit disorder. Whether that diagnosis is accurate or not, the point is that his approach to problems uniquely works for him. One might also argue that it not only works for him, but it works with the enterprise that he is trying to start. In contrast, the typical recommendation based on the above reality is to focus and pay careful attention to the task at hand. One must attempt to reach a conclusion before moving on to another action. As an aside, most treatment of ADHD stresses the need to have a thoughtful plan to guide activities and to decrease distractions to increase the ability to focus and improve productivity.
So, stay focused, but don’t get stuck on a single task. Switching a function to another one is the proper choice when one is not making progress or realizes that the task is far more difficult than initially anticipated. And, emergencies do arise where one has to stop one task and pick up another one. But, again, one is not multi-tasking, one is redirecting attention based on priority. In this case, when the fire is put out, go back and address the more minor concern.
- Schussler Steven, Karlins Marvin. It’s a Jungle in There: Inspiring Lessons, Hard-Won Insights, and Other Acts of Entrepreneurial Daring. Vol Reprint edition. New York: Sterling. February 7, 2012.
- Attentional inertia and delayed orienting of spatial attention in task-switching. Longman, Cai S.; Lavric, Aureliu; Munteanu, Cristian; Monsell, Stephen Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, Vol 40(4), Aug 2014, 1580-1602. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0036552 [full article]
- Gloria Mark
- Book: Multitasking in the Digital Age (Synthesis Lectures on Human-Centered Informatics)
- Mark, G., Gonzalez, V., and Harris, J. No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work. Proceedings of CHI’05, (2005), 113-120.
- Gloria Mark, Daniela Gudith, and Ulrich Klocke. 2008. The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’08). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 107-110. DOI=http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/1357054.1357072
- Iqbal, S.T. and E. Horvitz, Disruption and recovery of computing tasks: Field study, analysis, and directions, Proceedings of CHI 2007, 677-686.
- Sanbonmatsu DM, Strayer DL, Medeiros-Ward N, Watson JM (2013) Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking. PLoS ONE 8(1): e54402
- Brain, Interrupted – a 20% drop in score from an interruption
- How Frequent Task Switching is Ruining Your Productivity
- The Science Behind Task Interruption and Time Management
- The distraction economy: how technology downgraded attention – Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
- Nicolas Carr: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
Photo Credit: Wikipedia user Takamorry under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license and Airman Sadie Colbert Released 150802-F-MZ237-054.JPG. On official US Air Force Government Website