30 Apr Why Less Is More
Guilty as charged. We all think we can multi task, but the reality is fascinating. Incidentally I must confess that I began writing this whilst singing along to the radio and checking my emails at the same time as making coffee. When I read the title of what I needed to write about (after laughing out loud) I put down the spoon, turned off the radio, and settled down to writing these Things to Know about Multi-Tasking…
You’re going to get tired
There are two halves to the prefrontal cortex of the brain, and both work in harmony when you focus on a single task- they keep your attention on a single goal by co-ordinating messages to the other brain systems. Adding another task forces the two sides of the brain to work independently; this has a biological cost. Scientists working at INSERM in Paris (Institute National de la Santé et de la Recherché Medicale) gave participants two tasks to complete at the same time whilst undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). The results showed that the brain splits in half in order to manage both. This uses up oxygenated glucose faster than if the two halves are working together, so you end up feeling more tired more quickly. This makes you crave a quick fix like caffeine, and eat more food. Incidentally, most vets run their day so consistently dehydrated that their thirst signal becomes so weakened it gets mistaken for hunger. Also, if you’re distracted from food you tend to eat more anyway as the brain fails to process what you’ve eaten and a ‘full’ signal fails to register – so as well as being tired you may also put on weight. A 2010 French study found that if you then add a 3rd task, it can overwhelm the frontal cortex as it can no longer simply split – the participants were found to make three times more mistakes and forget details due to this biological cost and overwhelm.
You’re not actually multi-tasking
The other finding is that multitasking is really a bit of a myth. What the brain actually has to do is a fast ‘switch’ between different sets of rules. Guy Winch PhD says ‘When it comes to attention and productivity our brains have a finite amount. It’s like a pie chart, and whatever we’re working on is going to take up the majority of that pie. There’s not a lot left over for other things, with the exception of automatic behaviours like walking or chewing gum. Natural tasks like eating or walking are more ‘tolerated’ by the brain than, for example more complicated tasks like texting whilst driving. They place less load on the prefrontal cortex creating an easier switch. So maybe I could’ve got away with making my coffee on autopilot whilst writing this, but not the email checking.
You’re not really more productive
Interestingly, moving back and forth between several tasks actually wastes productivity. Your attention is expended on the act of switching gears- and you never get fully in the zone for each activity. ‘What tends to save time is to do things in batches’ says Winch. ‘Pay your bills all at once, then send your emails all at once. Each task requires a specific mindset, and once you get in a groove you should stay there and finish’.
You’re not so hot at multi-tasking anyway
Everyone boasts how good they are at ‘juggling’ their tasks. Being able to cope with conflicting demands on your time is seen as essential for a vet, but a study in Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance (Vol 27, No. 4) indicates that multi-tasking is less efficient because it takes more time to shift between mental gears any time that a person switches between tasks. Joshua Rubenstein PhD of the Federal Aviation Administration has proposed a new model for Cognitive Control. What has to happen first is goal shifting, as you actively decide to swap from one task to the next. Then, you need to activate the correct set of ‘Rules’ for the next task. Rule activation can only happen once your brain then turns off the cognitive ‘Rules’ of the old task. You can see this happening in the practice when someone goes from filling in Insurance forms to operating on an ex-lap; there’s a pause as the brain first turns off the data-reading and analysis rules and activates the surgery fine-motor and diagnostic rules. The time it takes for the brain to fully switch processes and cognitive rules takes time. If you ask staff to constantly juggle consultations, phone calls and surgery with note writing and lab work interpretation without any barriers, then this switching time will be a direct drain on their ability to get the job done.
You’re going to lose the fine-print
Switching between tasks causes a 40% loss in productivity. If one or more of your activities in your work includes critical thinking it can also introduce errors into whatever you’re working on. Perhaps talking to Mrs Jones on the phone about Fluffy whilst analysing the blood results from Coco is not the best plan after all.
Or, sometimes the large print.
A 2009 study from Western Washington University showed that 75% of college students walking across a campus square whilst talking on their cell phones did not notice a clown riding a unicycle nearby. This is called ‘in attentional blindness’ and means that even though the cell-phone users were technically looking at their surroundings, none of it was actually registering in their brains.
You’re going to make mistakes
Participants at a study performed by the University of London were asked to multi-task during cognitive tasks. It was found that they experienced an IQ drop similar to those participants who had stayed up all night; some of them dropped so far as to be equivalent to an 8-year-old child. So, the next time you’re tempted to check emails whilst listening to your new grad tell you all about that tricky case they’re working up, know that little information will be stored from either task by the time you’re finished! This gets worse the older you are (really going to depress you now). At the University of California researchers asked participants to stare at one visual image of a scene, and then abruptly switched to a different image. Those aged 60-80yrs had a tougher time disengaging from the second picture and recalling detail from the first than those aged 20-30yrs. The brain has a harder job getting back on track after even a brief detour as it gets older.
You’re going to get stressed
Do you have your phone set to beep at you every time a new message or email or notification comes in? Gloria Mark, Professor of Informatics at the University of California studied behaviour in an office environment where 23% of their day was spent emailing. They cut off 13 employees from their email for 5 days, strapped them up to an ECG and tracked their computer use. What was found was that the cut-off employees focussed on one task for longer periods of time and switched screens less often. They did less multi-tasking and were also significantly less stressed because of it according to the ECG trace. Those receiving constant emails and alerts stayed in a perpetual ‘high alert’ mode with higher heart rates.
You’re going to be slower
I know it seems controversial but when you are rushing around trying to cram it all into one day, there is a fair chance that because of all the factors above, you will actually end up taking longer. In a study at Utah University in 2008 drivers took longer to reach their destination when talking on a phone at the same time. This is for an automatic task like driving, imagine the effect at more complex levels of thought and behaviour (texting and even talking whilst driving is proven to be as dangerous as drunk driving – hasn’t stopped us from doing it yet). It also affects our focus; Gloria Mark found in her study that when interrupted, the participants typically took 23 minutes and 15 seconds to return to task, and that most people will choose to do two intervening tasks before going back to achieving their original goal. People who get frequently interrupted even then begin to self-interrupt and develop a markedly shorter attention span.
So, what now?
So now that I’ve thoroughly depressed you all, how exactly do we survive in this time-poor job? The solution is to give up on multi-tasking and set aside dedicated chunks of time for each separate activity says Daniel Levitin, Professor of Behavioural Neuroscience at McGill University. Also, take more breaks: ‘If you aren’t taking regular breaks every couple of hours, your brain won’t benefit from that extra cup of coffee’. This is because the drain on your blood glucose creates such exhaustion that caffeine only serves to bring you back to a resting baseline. Drink more water. The old-fashioned method is to take on approximately half as many ounces of water as you weigh in pounds (e.g. a ten-stone person is 160lb, so requires 80 fluid oz. to be considered hydrated) and make sure you manage your day so that you CAN use the OHIO principle, Only Handle It Once! If you get disturbed, don’t stop till you’ve finished your task.
Good luck everyone, please send us any useful tips you might have!
By Libby Kemkaran-Thompson
MA Vet MB MRCVS