MULTITASKING & Subtle “switching costs” cut efficiency, raise risk.

Commentary by Prof. B: Butler and Herman, in their widely disseminated research, cite “multitasking” as an attribute of “effective church leadership.” But other research conflicts with this (see the summary of research below), suggesting that multitasking takes a toll on productivity.

This incongruity can be understood by a closer look at Butler and Herman‘s delimiters which seem to indicate that they are describing multitasking in the sense of macro-multitasking: i.e. tackling different tasks over an extended period time (e.g. workday or morning/afternoon) and not with the rapidly that it is common today with the advent of smart phones, computers and multiple communication mediums. The modern attributes of micro-multitasking were probably not in their minds when Butler and Herman undertook their original research. Thus the careful student of Butler and Herman may choose to apply their conclusions to macro-multitasking situations rather than micro-multitasking ones which are increasingly common due to in the rapidity and accessibility of today’s communication modalities.

Micro-multitasking (e.g. switching between tasks within minutes or even seconds) is usually ineffective because of two mental process that occur during the switch between tasks: the “goal shifting” (e.g. “I want to do this now instead of that”) and “rule activation” (e.g. “I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this”). These two mental processes take time to complete and thus slow down the leader’s productivity. Read the following article for more insight

“Multitasking: Switching costs” by the editors, American Psychological Association, March 20, 2006.

What the research shows

Doing more than one task at a time, especially more than one complex task, takes a toll on productivity. Although that shouldn’t surprise anyone who has talked on the phone while checking E-mail or talked on a cell phone while driving, the extent of the problem might come as a shock. Psychologists who study what happens to cognition (mental processes) when people try to perform more than one task at a time have found that the mind and brain were not designed for heavy-duty multitasking. Psychologists tend to liken the job to choreography or air-traffic control, noting that in these operations, as in others, mental overload can result in catastrophe.

Multitasking can take place when someone tries to perform two tasks simultaneously, switch . from one task to another, or perform two or more tasks in rapid succession. To determine the costs of this kind of mental “juggling,” psychologists conduct task-switching experiments. By comparing how long it takes for people to get everything done, the psychologists can measure the cost in time for switching tasks. They also assess how different aspects of the tasks, such as complexity or familiarity, affect any extra time cost of switching.

In the mid-1990s, Robert Rogers, PhD, and Stephen Monsell, D.Phil, found that even when people had to switch completely predictably between two tasks every two or four trials, they were still slower on task-switch than on task-repeat trials. Moreover, increasing the time available between trials for preparation reduced but did not eliminate the cost of switching. There thus appear to be two parts to the switch cost — one attributable to the time taken to adjust the mental control settings (which can be done in advance it there is time), and another part due to competition due to carry-over of the control settings from the previous trial (apparently immune to preparation).

Surprisingly, it can be harder to switch to the more habitual of two tasks afforded by a stimulus. For example, Renata Meuter, PhD, and Alan Allport, PhD, reported in 1999 that if people had to name digits in their first or second language, depending on the color of the background, as one might expect they named digits in their second language slower than in their first when the language repeated. But they were slower in their first language when the language changed.

In experiments published in 2001, Joshua Rubinstein, PhD, Jeffrey Evans, PhD, and David Meyer, PhD, conducted four experiments in which young adults switched between different tasks, such as solving math problems or classifying geometric objects. For all tasks, the participants lost time when they had to switch from one task to another. As tasks got more complex, participants lost more time. As a result, people took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks. Time costs were also greater when the participants switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar. They got up to speed faster when they switched to tasks they knew better.

In a 2003 paper, Nick Yeung, Ph.D, and Monsell quantitatively modeled the complex and sometimes surprising experimental interactions between relative task dominance and task switching. The results revealed just some of the complexities involved in understanding the cognitive load imposed by real-life multi-tasking, when in addition to reconfiguring control settings for a new task, there is often the need to remember where you got to in the task to which you are returning and to decide which task to change to, when.

What the research means

According to Meyer, Evans and Rubinstein, converging evidence suggests that the human “executive control” processes have two distinct, complementary stages. They call one stage “goal shifting” (“I want to do this now instead of that”) and the other stage “rule activation” (“I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this”). Both of these stages help people to, without awareness, switch between tasks. That’s helpful. Problems arise only when switching costs conflict with environmental demands for productivity and safety.

Although switch costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks. Thus, multitasking may seem efficient on the surface but may actually take more time in the end and involve more error. Meyer has said that even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone’s productive time…

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COMMUNICATION & Humans have shorter attention span than goldfish, thanks to smartphones #UKTelegraphNewspaper

Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: “Humanity’s natural desire for more information, combined with the opportunity to have access to multiple channels of information has programmed our minds to prefer shorter bites of information. Read this interesting research cited in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper to learn how to communicate better in today’s multitasking, multi-source world. (In fact, I am writing this commentary while experiencing what the article calls ‘dual screening,’ i.e. I am watching the news on my iPad screen while writing this on my iPhone screen.)”

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SOCIAL MEDIA & Why a leading professor of new media just banned technology use in class #The ashingtonPost

by Clay Shirky9/25/14, The Washington Post

I teach theory and practice of social media at New York University, and am an advocate and activist for the free culture movement, so I’m a pretty unlikely candidate for Internet censor. But I have just asked the students in my fall seminar to refrain from using laptops, tablets, and phones in class.

I came late and reluctantly to this decision. I have been teaching classes about the Internet since 1998, and I’ve generally had a laissez-faire attitude towards technology use in the classroom. This was partly because the subject of my classes made technology use feel organic, and when device use went well, it was great. Then there was the competitive aspect. It’s my job to be more interesting than the possible distractions, so a ban felt like cheating. And finally, there’s not wanting to infantilize my students, who are adults, even if young ones. Time management is their job, not mine.

Despite these rationales, the practical effects of my decision to allow technology use in class grew worse over time. The level of distraction in my classes seemed to grow, even though it was the same professor and largely the same set of topics, taught to a group of students selected using roughly the same criteria every year. The change seemed to correlate more with the rising ubiquity and utility of the devices themselves, rather than any change in me, the students, or the rest of the classroom encounter.

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