The myth of multi-tasking.

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Paying attention to the statistics

A few years ago, I was invited to speak to a group of teenagers who had been brought together to create innovative road safety solutions for their peers.

The statistics they were grappling with were:

  • 88% of young drivers admit to using their mobile phones while driving.
  • Texting is the most prevalent behaviour at traffic lights (50%) and while driving (25%).
  • 25% of drivers check email, social media and the internet at the lights, and 15% do so while driving.

They considered the problem in light of the following sobering statistics (data from the Queensland Government, Australia):

  • In 2013 (when my meeting with the teenagers took place), there were 271 fatalities and 6,921 hospitalised casualties on Queensland roads. Distractions and inattention are known to have contributed to 19 deaths (or 7.0%) and 1,343 hospitalised casualties (or 19.4%).
  • In Queensland, in the year ending July 2023, there were 282 road deaths. This represents a slight increase compared to the previous year.🌱

The two key reasons drivers used to explain their inappropriate mobile phone use were,

  • the need to keep in touch with people
  • the pressure to respond to texts and calls immediately.

After I spoke, the session broke into groups to brainstorm powerful, emotional, and out-of-the-box ideas to share and engage with their peers.

I was involved in a similar CoLab campaign in 2015, and this video ‘Slow Down Stallion’ was the result!

Here are some of the ideas we discussed.

Think of your attention as a flashlight.

It’s helpful to envision your attention as similar to a flashlight, especially the kind with an adjustable beam.

Your attention functions like this beam of light:

  • It’s always active, but it might not always point where we need it to — sometimes it wanders.
  • It can be broad and dispersed or focussed and concentrated.
  • It can’t be divided to shine in multiple directions at once.

Picture yourself driving a car.

Your attention might be broad and outward, scanning the flow of traffic on a motorway as you decide whether to change lanes. Alternatively, it could be sharply focused, like when you’re waiting for a traffic signal to switch. Internally, your attention might help you visualise a route, or it could be narrow as you try to remember a list of items to buy at the grocery store.

We need to actively manage our attention and consciously prioritise what truly matters, even if it means ignoring distractions like a text message while driving.

What happens when we multi-task distract ourselves when driving?

Using a mobile phone while driving is a hazardous practice that many drivers overconfidently believe they can handle safely.

It’s one thing to scroll through TikTok during lunch or to enjoy music on a walk with your dog. Such routine activities—like walking, chewing, or breathing—don’t demand the full spotlight of our attention. However, tasks that require focus and decision-making, such as reading, composing a text, or driving a car, necessitate directed attention.

Research led by David Strayer, a psychology professor at the University of Utah, supports these concerns.

His team observed thousands of drivers at various intersections and found that the majority who were on the phone did not comply with traffic laws, regardless of whether they were using handheld or hands-free devices.

It’s worth mentioning that drivers who engage in conversation with a passenger do not experience the same impairment, likely due to the fact that the passenger is also attentive to the road and can adjust the conversation according to driving conditions.

The reality is that talking on a phone while driving exemplifies the pitfalls of multitasking.

Studies have consistently demonstrated that this leads to:

  • Compromised judgement and concentration, resulting in riskier decision-making.
  • Delayed response times, especially noticeable during deep conversations, which can lead to missing traffic signals or reacting too slowly to them. 🌱
  • Inefficient and erratic braking, characterised by slower reaction times and more forceful, less controlled braking, reducing the safety buffer to the vehicle ahead.
  • Reduced awareness of the driving environment, as drivers engaged in phone calls tend to check their mirrors less frequently and are less vigilant of their surroundings, compromising traffic safety. 🌱

Try this game to prove multi-tasking is impossible.

Despite research, many people remain utterly convinced of their multi-tasking prowess!
Here’s a simple task to try with that shows how difficult it is to split your attention between two seemingly simple tasks (it’s guaranteed to generate a few laughs, as well as drive the point home!).

  1. Time a person as they recite the alphabet aloud from A to Z.
  2. Time them as they count backward from 26.
  3. Then, time them as they alternate between the two tasks: “26, A, 25, B, 24, C…” and so on.

During this last task, observe closely. You’ll likely to see an increase in errors and a slower pace, accompanied by signs of stress or amusement, such as laughter or blushing. Some may even opt not to complete the task (I’ve seen young men full of bravado walk out of the room!).

This exercise demonstrates how our attention, much like a beam of light, can’t be split. Instead, we toggle between tasks, which significantly reduces our performance on even simple activities.

The lesson here is straightforward: What may seem like adept multi-tasking is actually just a form of distraction.

What’s going on in the brain when it tries to multi-task?

The prefrontal cortex is the brain region responsible for choosing what to pay attention to, and for coordinating inputs from other brain areas. By scanning the prefrontal cortex of people while they multi-tasked, scientists at the INSERM in Paris found that when people focus on a single task, the right and left sides of the prefrontal cortex work together. But when people attempt to perform two tasks at once, the sides work independently. 🌱

Neuroscientist Etienne Koechlin lead researcher on this study says it demonstrates that while the brain can switch back and forth between two tasks,

“…we might be in great trouble when we try to juggle more than two tasks, simply because we have only two frontal lobes.”

Etienne Koechlin

Multitasking doesn’t just slow you down and increase the number of mistakes you make; it temporarily changes how your brain works! 🌱

Other researchers who study attention say that effective multi-tasking is nearly impossible. Psychiatrist Edward M. Hallowell describes multi-tasking as a

“…mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.”

Edward M. Hallowell

I surveyed the attendees at the CoLab meeting and asked them what percentage of the population they believed could effectively multi-task. Their answer of “about 50%” lines up with how most people respond.

Unsurprisingly, most people place themselves in this skilled but mythical subgroup. The reality is very different. David Strayer has found only 2.5% of the population can multi-task effectively.

For most of us, our brain can’t pay close attention to more than one complex task at a time.

My message is simple: put down the phone. (I can’t wait to see what the creative CoLab campaign comes up with!)


2024 Research Updates:

🌱 New Updates:

  1. Using a phone or not, the presence of a device has been discovered to be inherently distracting for drivers. In all tested conditions, people’s performance in a driving simulator was significantly worse when a mobile phone was present, even if the phone was switched off or not positioned close to them. This effect was more significant for people who are more ‘dependent’ on their phones.
  • A more recent systematic review of nearly 100 studies has found that talking to a passenger has a similar risk for the driver as having both hand-held and hands-free phone conversations. Compared to driving alone, talking to a passenger reduces a driver’s reaction rates and decreases their detection of objects in the environment, such as road signs. The observed reduction in driver reaction rates was similar to both types of phone conversations. Texting or dialling on the phone had even more drastic adverse effects on drivers’ attention.
  • In a 2019 paper, researchers found that older and more experienced drivers have slower reaction rates and are less likely to stop for yellow traffic lights when distracted. This was thought to be due to the more instinctive and routine nature of driving with increased experience, which reduces their vigilance towards road conditions.
  • Another study again found that older drivers were more likely to become dangerously distracted while driving. When required to multitask during a driving simulator, older drivers were more likely to veer off the road or drive across the median strip, especially if the task took their gaze away from the road. This suggests older drivers may be more susceptible to accidents when not being actively alert in their surroundings.
  • Research has since found that the splitting of attention between the two sides of the brain depends on whether the distraction is related to the main task. People were subjected to one of two distraction types whilst driving: following audible GPS instructions or listening to the radio. People who were following GPS instructions had increased connectivity within their brains, whilst the two hemispheres worked independently in those listening to the radio.
  • Interestingly, when people are distracted whilst driving, their brain diverts activity away from regions involved in vision. This means that even if their eyes are still focused on the road, their brain is likely paying less attention to processing the incoming visual information. There is also reduced activity in the motor areas directly associated with driving. Meanwhile, activity increases in the frontal regions of the brain when driving distracted, which likely reflects the top-down control and conscious reallocation of attention.

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5 Comments

  1. Melissa on November 1, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    I’ve have a question that I’ve wondered about for a few years: is talking on a cell phone while driving more distracting than listening to music, talk radio or an audio book or podcast? I’ve just been perplexed about why we talk so much about talking on the cell phone while driving, but never about other ways we distract ourselves. Is it because listening to music, talk radio or an audio book / podcast is passive and a conversation is interactive, thus requiring more focus?

    To be honest, I find that I am most distracted when I’m in a silent car with just my own thoughts. I get to work and wonder how I got there because I was so stuck in my own head. And I get super involved in audio books and podcasts. But maybe that’s a personal problem 🙂

  2. Clay Ryan on November 3, 2016 at 5:33 pm

    Yes, multi-tasking is a myth for most. Although at one time, I was certainly in the super-tasker capable group whose focus actually increased in those multiple effort situations, I now know that this creates harm to the brain. (see Scientific American Mind articles)

    By continually practicing multi-tasking, you train the brain to divide its attention. This is not good. Simple as that.

    Also, just like being a ‘super’ athlete at a younger age, it is not sustainable over time.

    For me, I found out just how simple ‘dual tasking’ created a significant alteration in my breathing, heart rate, heart smoothness, and therefore, capacity when I first played a Biofeedback game called Dual Drive (Alive).

    When not controlling the car, all of my feedback breathing, heart rate, etc. parameters were perfect; once I started the 2nd task of driving the car, my previous perfect was 50% and chaotic.

    Such as it is in real life driving – or working. One task focus is what we do best.

  3. Denise Medved on November 5, 2016 at 1:15 pm

    Sarah — what, if any, difference do you know of between multitasking and multi-skilling — and how do each affect/involve the brain? In the fitness and movement world, we refer to multi-skilling as being able to do 2-3 different physical functions of one activity, a skill developed through practice: playing the violin for example, requires my left hand to play chords on the frets, my head and chin need to position the violin, my right hand needs to play the bow or pluck the strings….this would be called “playing the violin” yet it involves three or four different physical skills simultaneously and requires my brain to direct each of those physical and mental activities

  4. Tom MCKERNAN on January 25, 2024 at 11:52 am

    Thank you for addressing multi tasking scientifically. Having the facts makes a huge difference to my way of doing things. As in writing this reply I am focused on being focused. I will adapt my brain to being focused upon one thought pattern. Again thank you.

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