Multi Task Essay

Josh Waitzkin’s learning abilities–and principles–extend far beyond chess.

Some of you might be familiar with Josh Waitzkin.

He was the subject of the book and movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer and an eight-time National Chess Champion in his youth. He also holds a combined 21 National titles in addition to several World Championships in martial arts, and now trains hedge funds and other companies in high-end learning and performance psychology. His cross-transfer of skill acquisition is incredible.

I reached out to Josh after reading his book, The Art of Learning, and we fast became friends. Between practicing kneebars and waxing philosophical or tactical about learning, we now tend to discuss our shared concern for the direction of modern education.

This is part 1 of a 2-part article written by Josh about what he calls the “multitasking virus.”


A few weeks ago, I returned to the classroom of Dennis Dalton, the most important college professor of my life. From the back of an amphitheater seating several hundred students, I realized how much things had evolved at Columbia and Barnard. The lecture hall was now equipped with a wireless sound system, webcams, video projectors, wireless internet. Students were using computers to record the lecture and to take notes. Heads were buried in screens, the tap tap of hundreds of keyboards like rain on the roof.

On this afternoon, April 16, 2008, Dalton was describing the satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi, building the discussion around the Amritsar massacre in 1919, when British colonial soldiers opened fire on 10,000 unarmed Indian men, women and children trapped in Jallianwala Bagh Garden. For 39 years, Professor Dalton has been inspiring Columbia and Barnard students with his two semester political theory series that introduces undergrads to the ideas of Gandhi, Thoreau, Mill, Malcolm X, King, Plato, Lao Tzu. His lectures are about themes, connections between disparate minds, the powerful role of the individual in shaping our world.

Dalton is a life changer, and this was one of his last lectures before retirement.

Over the course of a riveting 75-minute discussion of the birth of Gandhian non-violent activism, I found myself becoming increasingly distressed as I watched students cruising Facebook, checking out the NY Times, editing photo collections, texting, reading People Magazine, shopping for jeans, dresses, sweaters, and shoes on Ebay, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew, reorganizing their social calendars, emailing on Gmail and AOL, playing solitaire, doing homework for other classes, chatting on AIM, and buying tickets on Expedia (I made a list because of my disbelief). From my perspective in the back of the room, while Dalton vividly described desperate Indian mothers throwing their children into a deep well to escape the barrage of bullets, I noticed that a girl in front of me was putting her credit card information into Urban She had finally found her shoes!

When the class was over I rode the train home heartbroken, composing a letter to the students, which Dalton distributed the next day. Then I started investigating. Unfortunately, what I observed was not an isolated incident. Classrooms across America have been overrun by the multi-tasking virus. Teachers are bereft. This is the year that Facebook has taken residence in the national classroom.

Students defend this trend by citing their generation’s enhanced ability to multi-task. Unfortunately, the human mind cannot, in fact, multi-task without drastically reducing the quality of our processing. Brain activation for listening is cut in half if the person is trying to process visual input at the same time. A recent study at The British Institute of Psychiatry showed that checking your email while performing another creative task decreases your IQ in the moment 10 points. That is the equivalent of not sleeping for 36 hours—more than twice the impact of smoking marijuana. But to be honest, on the educational front, multi-tasking feels to me like a symptom of a broader sense of alienation.

I know what it is like to be disengaged. In fact, the crisis that played a large role in ending my chess career was rooted in becoming disconnected from my natural love for learning…

[Continued in Part 2]

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Posted on: May 25, 2008.

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But despite what many of us think, you cannot simultaneously e-mail and talk on the phone. I think we’re all familiar with what Dr. Hallowell calls “e-mail voice,” when someone you’re talking to on the phone suddenly sounds, well, disengaged.

“You cannot divide your attention like that,” he said. “It’s a big illusion. You can shift back and forth.”

We all know that computers and their spawn, the smartphone and cellphone, have created a very different world from several decades ago, when a desk worker had a typewriter, a phone and an occasional colleague who dropped into the office.

Think even of the days before the cordless phone. Those old enough can remember when talking on the telephone, which was stationary, meant sitting down, putting your feet up and chatting — not doing laundry, cooking dinner, sweeping the floor and answering the door.

That is so far in the past. As we are required, or feel required, to do more and more things in a shorter period of time, researchers are trying to figure out how the brain changes attention from one subject to another.

Earl Miller, the Picower professor of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, explained it this way: human brains have a very large prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that contains the “executive control” process. This helps us switch and prioritize tasks.

In humans, he said, the prefrontal cortex is about one-third of the entire cortex, while in dogs and cats, it is 4 or 5 percent and in monkeys about 15 percent.

“With the growth of the prefrontal cortex, animals become more and more flexible in their behavior,” Professor Miller said.

We can do a couple of things at the same time if they are routine, but once they demand more cognitive process, the brain has “a severe bottleneck,” he said.

Professor Miller conducted studies where electrodes were attached to the head to monitor participants performing different tasks.

He found that “when there’s a bunch of visual stimulants out there in front of you, only one or two things tend to activate your neurons, indicating that we’re really only focusing on one or two items at a time.”

David E. Meyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, and his colleagues looked at young adults as they performed tasks that involved solving math problems or classifying geometric objects.

Their 2001 study, published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that for all types of tasks, the participants lost time when they had to move back and forth from one undertaking to another, and that it took significantly longer to switch between the more complicated tasks.

Although the time it takes for our brains to switch tasks may be only a few seconds or less, it adds up. If we’re talking about doing two jobs that can require real concentration, like text-messaging and driving, it can be fatal.

The RAC Foundation, a British nonprofit organization that focuses on driving issues, asked 17 drivers, age 17 to 24, to use a driving simulator to see how texting affected driving.

The reaction time was around 35 percent slower when writing a text message — slower than driving drunk or stoned.

All right, there are definitely times we should not try to multitask. But, we may think, it’s nice to say that we should focus on one thing at a time, but the real world doesn’t work that way. We are constantly interrupted.

A 2005 study, “No Task Left Behind? Examining the Nature of Fragmented Work,” found that people were interrupted and moved from one project to another about every 11 minutes. And each time, it took about 25 minutes to circle back to that same project.

Interestingly, a study published last April, “The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress,” found that “people actually worked faster in conditions where they were interrupted, but they produced less,” said Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California at Irvine and a co-author of both studies. And she also found that people were as likely to self-interrupt as to be interrupted by someone else.

“As observers, we’ll watch, and then after every 12 minutes or so, for no apparent reasons, someone working on a document will turn and call someone or e-mail,” she said. As I read that, I realized how often I was switching between writing this article and checking my e-mail.

Professor Mark said further research needed to be done to know why people work in these patterns, but our increasingly shorter attention spans probably have something to do with it.

Her study found that after only 20 minutes of interrupted performance, people reported significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort and pressure.

“I also argue that it’s bad for innovation,” she said. “Ten and a half minutes on one project is not enough time to think in-depth about anything.”

Dr. Hallowell has termed this effort to multitask “attention deficit trait.” Unlike attention deficit disorder, which he has studied for years and has a neurological basis, attention deficit trait “springs entirely from the environment,” he wrote in a 2005 Harvard Business Review article, “Overloaded Circuits: Why Smart People Underperform.”

“As our minds fill with noise — feckless synaptic events signifying nothing — the brain gradually loses its capacity to attend fully and gradually to anything,” he wrote. Desperately trying to keep up with a multitude of jobs, we “feel a constant low level of panic and guilt.”

But Dr. Hallowell says that despite our belief that we cannot control how much we’re overloaded, we can.

“We need to recreate boundaries,” he said. That means training yourself not to look at your BlackBerry every 20 seconds, or turning off your cellphone. It means trying to change your work culture so such devices are banned at meetings. Sleeping less to do more is a bad strategy, he says. We are efficient only when we sleep enough, eat right and exercise.

So the next time the phone rings and a good friend is on the line, try this trick: Sit on the couch. Focus on the conversation. Don’t jump up, no matter how much you feel the need to clean the kitchen. It seems weird, but stick with it. You, too, can learn the art of single-tasking.

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