Multitasking Nation

On your way to work this morning, or dropping off the kids at school or going to the store, how many of you were yakking on the phone while you drove? Maybe you were drinking coffee or, heaven help us, applying your makeup or eating breakfast. When you arrived at work you were promptly busy juggling three or four – or more – projects, checking your voice mail, checking your e-mail and surfing your favorite Web sites. As the day progressed, the work piled up, along with countless distractions and interruptions. You drag yourself home at 5 or 6 p.m., make dinner while watching TV, and divide the rest of your evening between paying your bills online, texting and checking your voice mail while doing the laundry, unloading the dishwasher, walking the dog and supervising the kids.

Welcome to Multitasking Nation, where more, more, more equals MORE. Or so we’d like to think.

Somewhere along the way, the number of tasks we can juggle at any given time seems to have become the yardstick for how successful we are at managing our lives. What we’re conveniently forgetting (or ignoring), however, is the fact that biology is stacked against us.

The human brain is a pretty amazing thing. It can process thousands of bytes of sensory input – what we see, hear, smell, taste, feel, remember – at lightning speed. Even when the brain is injured, it can adapt. But what it apparently can’t do is process multiple things simultaneously – or at least not process them with any proficiency.

The brain’s ability to multitask has been getting a lot of attention in recent years, probably because of our increasingly hurry-up lifestyle and the growing number of distractions to occupy our time. The Neurophilosophy science blog explored this issue awhile back with a good explanation for the layperson:

We know well that it is very difficult to concentrate fully on more than one task; researchers are now beginning to gain an understanding of the neural bases of the limits of multitasking (and some hope to overcome them with augmented cognition). Recent neuroimaging studies in which participants switch between one task and another have implicated several regions of the frontal cortex as bottlenecks to the processing of information. It is emerging that multitasking places excessive demands on executive control centres in the frontal lobe. Hence, multitasking is counterproductive – not only does completion of all the tasks take longer than if they were performed one at a time, but performance on all tasks is also impaired.

NPR put together an interesting series back in 2008 that took a closer look at what happens when the brain tries to multitask, and why so many of us are fooled into thinking we’re good at multitasking:

“People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, “The brain is very good at deluding itself.”

Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that for the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.

What we can do, he said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.

“Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not,” Miller said.

“You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.”

Some research suggests that with cognitive training, people can become better at juggling multiple brain activities. Even with training and practice, however, it appears that task performance is generally better when the tasks are carried out independently than when they’re done simultaneously.

I’m all too familiar with the feeling you get when your synapses are overloaded. As we approached a major deadline here in the newsroom last week, a couple of colleagues remarked that their brains had turned into oatmeal. (Mine felt more like cold molasses.)

The implications of multitasking on people’s ability to function effectively are obvious – particularly so in highly cognitive fields such as health care, where the demands on one’s focus, concentration, and attention to detail and accuracy are extreme. Distractions and interruptions are significant contributing factors to medical errors. When a Minnesota surgeon accidentally removed the wrong kidney from a patient a couple of years ago, distraction and subsequent failure to note the correct surgical site in the patient’s medical record during a pre-surgery office visit were cited as among the causes.

In one study that looked at the emergency room in a large teaching hospital, registered nurses experienced an average of three interruptions per hour, usually a phone call, a page or face-to-face discussion. Even background noise can be a serious distraction to providing safe patient care, which is one reason why many hospitals are trying to create a quieter environment. When Rice Memorial Hospital built a new patient wing a few years ago, it incorporated medication rooms where a nurse or other clinician can step away from a busy nursing station and prepare a medication dose in somewhat less stressful surroundings.

Like many of the rest of us, health care professionals tend to think multitasking comes with the territory. An interesting article that appeared a few years ago in the journal of the American Association of Perioperative Nurses notes how this has been ingrained into health care culture:

… There is little opportunity to say “no” or “not now” to distractions or interruptions. There may even be an unspoken expectation that part of a health care clinician’s job is to handle all types of interruptions effectively and to do so without appearing stressed or flustered. The reality is that humans have a limited capacity to manage distractions and interruptions in a safe manner.

We’ve all heard the phrase “do more with less.” And up to a point, it’s true. But eventually the returns start to diminish and we find we’re not doing more with less, we’re just doing less. No matter how good we think we are at multitasking, we can’t outwit our own brains.

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