Multitasking, or, wishing won’t make it so

Yesterday, I worked with a group of people at a nonprofit; the goal was to help them manage the content on the organization’s web site — a new task for most, a new interface for all of them.  Certain, um, distinctive characteristics of their system reminded me (again) of how often “training” serves as the Clearasil on the zits of some software application.

All of these folks are busy at work, and until now none of that busy-ness has meant wrestling with the finer points of Drupal.  They’re not much into multitasking, a topic Jane Hart touched on recently.  She points out that today’s new learners are multi-taskers, and links to a Learning Circuits article by Tom Brigham, How to Train Multitaskers.

I’m looking forward to Jane’s promised piece on the needs of those new learners.  I thought Tom’s ideas made sense, though none of them is unique to “e-Learning 2.0” (possibly since distractions and competition for attention existed long before even Whatever 1.0).  And at their cores, each of Tom’s suggestions is aimed at having people choose not to multitask for a while.

I’m skeptical about multitasking.  Sure, I’ve seen people listening to music, skimming their BlackBerry, hopping onto a call, updating mankind via Twitter, all while drinking coffee and, I suppose, mashing up the new strategic plan for presentation via YouTube.

Top row: yogurt drink, hairbrush, electric shaver, Polo cologne, bananas; bottom: CD playing, cell phone

But there’s a big difference between doing several things and getting several things done.  Our brains aren’t really good at doing two things at once if they both involve focused attention. John Medina describes the process in chapter four of Brain Rules:

  • Shift alert: when your brain detects a signal to shift attention (you decide to start the report, you hear the phone, you see a email arrive), blood rushes to the anterior prefrontal cortex.  “Brace yourself, brain!”
  • Rule activation: the brain seeks to locate the neurons required for the new task –  those involved in writing, or in phone conversation, or in reading emails).  Having found them, the brain then gets them started (hence, activation).
  • Disengagement: as you work on your report (task A), your brain picks up a signal from outside the task realm (e.g., the chime of an arriving email).  The executive function of the brain must disengage at least partially from task A.  You may still be physically holding the pen or touching the keyboard, but your brain has paused.
  • Rule activation for task B: At a cost of a few tenths of a second, once again the brain locates and then activates a set of neurons appropriate to the new task.

That’s for every switch that requires attention. (Thank heavens for the autonomous nervous sytem.)

Clearly, some people do this better than others — younger people more so than older ones (in general); people working on familiar tasks rather than novel ones.  But any superior performance is likely to to greater working memory that’s capable of shuttling faster to handle new inputs one at a time.

I think this has implications for work literacy — a recognition that at least some of the time, trying to do things at once, or as they arrive, is counterproductive.  I absolutely believe that the individual is in charge of his own learning.  As with the individual’s own health, though, people don’t always make the best choices — something Rob Wilkins also muses about in Lots to Learn from the Past.

MultitaskMobile photo by Or Hiltch. It’s his car.
On the top of the dash: yogurt drink, hairbrush, electric shaver, Polo cologne, two bananas (in case of a guest?).
Lower down: CD playing, cell phone at the ready.

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