Multi-tasking

A study by the University of Utah, partly funded by a grant from the American Automobile Association Foundation for Traffic Safety, looked at personality and multitasking ability in the particular context of who was most likely to use a mobile phone when driving – you can read the full paper here.  The study concluded that multi-tasking was positively correlated with participants’ perceived ability to multi-task which was found to be significantly inflated compared to their actual ability. Participants with a strong approach orientation – high levels of impulsivity and sensation seeking – and a weak avoidance orientation reported greater multi-tasking behaviour.  Oh, excuse me a moment, Number 1 Daughter is home early, just had a quick chat with her – orchestra cancelled apparently.

So, where was I, ah yes, the multitasking study.  The finding that people who typically multitask are much less effective at it than they believe themselves to be, tallies with the evidence about the general propensity for inflated self-assessment ratings.  And does the connection between high multitasking tendency and a high task/approach orientation give significant food-for-thought in the context of recruitment and selection procedures?

Closely connected to multi-tasking is the research undertaken by Professor Gloria Mark on interruptions.  Her finding that ’people spend 11 minutes, interrupted three times, on a task before moving to the next one’ is often cherry picked by those looking for evidence in the ‘war on distraction’.  Less often quoted is her finding that interrupted people tend to actually complete their tasks faster than uninterrupted ones – but at a price of increased frustration and stress levels.  Her assertion that email, and how we use it, is at the root of much of this trouble is something that few would disagree with.

Sorry, just needed to check the vegetables.  Now then, back to multitasking.  John Medina in his very readable Brain Rules talks about our brains inability to multitask when it comes to higher order tasks – walking and chewing gum is not a higher order task – and, as with the University of Utah study, he considers the particular context of using a phone whilst driving:

“Driving while talking on a cell phone is like driving drunk. The brain is a sequential processor and large fractions of a second are consumed every time the brain switches tasks. This is why cell-phone talkers are a half-second slower to hit the brakes and get in more wrecks”

Overall, his research suggests that multitasking increases error rates by 50% and that it takes us twice as long to do things when switching between tasks.  The University of Utah study and John Medina concur that the use and abuse of multitasking is a brain related topic concerned with working memory and executive function – the latter, for example, helps determine whether we are able to not multitask.  Luckily there is plenty we can do to develop working memory and take greater control of our brain’s executive function – rather than leaving it to chance or defaulting to a ‘well that’s just the way I work’ defensive mode.  This is one of the topics covered in our Flourish programme which you can get more details of by contacting us through the website.

Hang on, can I smell something burning?

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