I heard a story about a man steering his car with his knees so he could type a text with both hands, as he participated on a conference call using his earbud. Oh, let me add, his wife and two children were in the car at the time of his “multitasking” (hair-raising) performance. This is an example of a person demonstrating a serious lack of knowledge.
We live during a wonderful time in history. Knowledge on almost any topic is at our fingertips: we just Google it. Yet, even in this day and age of fingertip knowledge, many important subjects slip under our radar screen. In this article, I will examine a subject that impacts our lives daily: “multitasking.”
The Truth About Multitasking
The term “multitasking” originated in the computer engineering industry. It refers to the ability of a microprocessor to apparently process several tasks at the same time. The first published use of the word “multitask” appeared in an IBM paper describing the capabilities of the IBM System/360 in 1965. This means that prior to 1965 there was no word describing the human attempt to accomplish several tasks at the same time – how did we get along without it? This does raise another question.
Can the human brain process several tasks simultaneously, or does it switch between tasks? A study by Vanderbilt University found that “multitasking is largely limited by the speed with which our prefrontal cortex processes information.” Paul E. Dux, co-author of the study, states that “this process can become faster through proper training.” However, the study also suggests that “the brain is incapable of performing multiple tasks at one time, even after extensive training…it cannot truly multitask.”
So, it looks like we have a one-track mind with a switching station that directs our focus down a thought-track we choose to travel. This means we change our focus when we change our task – it’s just who we are.
Here is the misconception that drives the “knees on the steering wheel” behavior. Some people actually believe they can perform more than one task during the same time period and produce the same results as when they focus on just one task. Here is reality: When normal human beings attempt multiple tasks, the outcome of the tasks performed diminishes. As a flight instructor, I saw firsthand the diminishing return on multiple task performance.
Multitasking in the Cockpit
— US Department of Transportation
It became abundantly clear from watching student pilots perspire profusely at the flight controls of an aircraft: When they focus on one task, their level of performance deteriorates on other key tasks.
A prime example of performance deterioration consistently occurs when the communication task is added to their aircraft control responsibility. They adequately handle each task separately, but when the two are combined, it is a totally different result. On occasion, actual loss of control of a perfectly good aircraft became a possibility as a result of their attempt to focus on directives from and responses to the air traffic controller. Focus is a finite resource and it can be exhausted quickly in a task-overload environment.
One very important concept that “old” pilots understand: Focus on the critical tasks until the chocks are against tires.
Multitasking Behind the Wheel
This concept is equally important for we who operate motor vehicles, as evidenced by the loss of life (over 30,000 yearly) and the millions of people injured in car accidents.
According to the US Department of Transportation, some 421,000 Americans were injured in distracted driver crashes last year. Why do so many people take such a dangerous task so lightly? Why don’t we apply the same level of attention to critical task performance as pilots consistently demonstrate? As evidenced by the above statistics, the level of risk of injury or death does not seem to play a role in this decision-making process.
I find it interesting that many of us are extremely afraid to give a speech, and yet when we do perform this death-defying task, we focus – we really focus. I’ve not seen any recent statistics on the number of people killed or seriously injured while giving a speech, but my guess is, it’s really low.
However, while driving our automobile (the most dangerous task most people undertake) to the location where we will give our speech, we focus on the unimportant and trust fate for the critical tasks associated with the safe operation of the vehicle. We take calls at 70 MPH and we text as we drive through a neighborhood where children play. Most of the time, fate treats us kindly and we arrive safely.
But it can change in a heartbeat. The question we all must answer is, will we be focused on the critical task when a life-changing event (call it fate’s curveball) occurs? When the car suddenly crosses into our lane, when the four-year-old child darts into the street in front of us. Here is the question: Do we think the man with his knees on the steering wheel possesses the level of focus necessary to anticipate these events and save the lives of his family or the four-year-old? The answer is “No.”
A tragic fact is that more than 30,000 people alive at the close of 2014 may die by the end of 2015 due to auto accident. Add to this unfortunate number millions of injuries, and we have our reason to focus on what is critical. It requires setting aside distractions until our car is parked. We must not allow chance or fate to determine major life events. As driver-in-command, we must take control and focus on what is important.
Our ability to control and direct our focus toward a specific task is a powerful attribute. It’s our beautiful one-track mind at work. And that is a wonderful quality we all possess.