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New Year's Resolution - Don't Multitask. We Can't Do It. It Could Kill You.

Posted Dec 31 2009 2:41pm
I've been fighting pretty hard to avoid the temptation to multitask. I plan to do so again this year. People who claim to multitask are viewed with awe. Attaining the skill is a badge of honor. In a society that is increasingly 24 /7 where demands from work, family, and friends seems endless and the opportunities to be connected are more, how can a person survive if they simply do one task at a time?

Simple. Research suggests that the person who single tasks actually does better work, focuses better, and is productive.

Oh and it might save your life.

The term multitasking became part of our language a few years ago when single tasked computers running DOS (remember them?) could now run multiple programs or tasks at the same time in multiple windows. The computer could download a program off the internet, play music, and let you type up term paper simultaneously in Microsoft Word. Initally, however, that was just an illusion. Computers in the past only had one processor or one brain. It gave the perception of multitasking by switching from one of the three above tasks so fast that it gave the impression of doing everything at the same time. Today many if not most computers have multiple computer processors or more than one brain and each can be dedicated and focused to the task at hand.

While we all might want the ability to multitask, the truth is we can't really do two cognitive tasks at the same time. Ever notice when you try to talk to someone on the phone she either lifts a finger to say what a minute or cups the receiver, stops the phone conversation, and then addresses your presence? It's because we can only do one task at a time.

Don't believe me? Still think you can multitask?

Next time, when while you are in conversation with a friend do this simple math problem, take 311 and divide by 113. You can't either keep up with your friend without stopping, pausing, and thinking or you need to stop doing the math if you are engaged in talking. In other words you can't be fully conscious of doing two things simultaneously. You move from one task to the other much like single processor computers. The difference is we don't and can't switch as fast as the brains in our PCs.

So how might avoiding multitasking save your life?

Don't talk on the cellphone when driving or text message. Ever.

Many laws missed the point about hands free driving with cell phone usage. It isn't about the hands being off the steering wheel. The problem is that the brain is engrossed in conversation. Although the foot is on the accelerator and the eyes do see the road and cars ahead, the brain isn't fully cognizant of what is going on. It can't respond should something happen.

Sadly, examples from the news make this painfully clear.

A recent Los Angeles Times article found that a Metrolink commuter train ran a red light. This is particularly worrisome as on September 12th 2008, Metrolink had the worst accident in its history when a crash killed 25 people and injured 135. Investigators believe that in the latter case, the engineer had been text messaging and ran a red light. These trains can travel as fast as 90 miles per hour or 132 feet per second. Or 44 yards per second nearly half the length of a football field! Stopping at that speed requires over half a mile or a little more than two laps around a typical high school track.

In October, Northwest airline pilots missed landing at Minneapolis by 150 miles. They denied being asleep but using their laptops and trying to get their scheduling software to work. The merger between the airlines Northwest and Delta also caused some system flaws that prevented communications between air traffic control and the pilots. Radio contact was not established for over one hour. At the typical cruising speed of over 500 miles per hour for the Airbus A320 even a small five minute distraction can result in flying over 40 miles.

How might these stories apply to you and more importantly save your life?

As I note in my book, unintentional injuries are the leading cause of death among people age one to thirty-four and the third leading cause among forty-five to fifty-four-year olds. The most common cause of unintentional injuries is motor vehicle accidents. This was before the cell phones and text messaging was as mainstream as it is now.

Driving at 60 miles per hour or about 1 mile per minute you cover 5280 feet per minute or 1760 yards. 17 football field lengths.

10 second distraction? 293 yards. 3 football fields.

Any text message worth it? Phone call?

Unlikely. A Virgina Tech study found that those text messaging where 23 times more likely to get into a car accident.

Get the word out. Stay focused. That's why this year I'm still staying away from smartphones, using my trusty old cell phone, but leaving it on the off position.
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