If you’ve ever been to airports with automated speed walk sidewalks, you’ll observe that about fifteen feet before the sidewalk ends, you hear a voice alerting you to your pending expulsion from it. Not so for real sidewalks on the street.

Photo courtesy of Ohio State College of Engineering

According to a New York Times report, a recent Ohio State University study about texting while walking and the 1000 reported injuries incurred by texting walkers points to an increasing issue of pedestrian traffic safety.  Ohio State University’s Transportation and Parking department is trying to offset the rising epidemic by putting up signs such as the one pictured here.

Or, as I like to say, “You text? You’re next.” That goes for pedestrians as well as drivers.

I can see it now. Sidewalks will soon be equipped with textured flooring just to alert texting pedestrians that a curb is approaching. Or maybe they’ll have recordings of soothing, yet urgent voices like the ones at today’s airports, pointing the way to safety and attention.

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Logo of Harvard University
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CTV news wrote a piece about Harvard Business School blogger Peter Bregman who embarked on a single-tasking experiment after a series of multitasking blunders. He tried to craft an email while on a conference call with a board member, who asked him a question. When the board member received no response, the situation got awkward.

Peter swore off multitasking for a week.

Here’s what he found.

  • Delight.
  • Enhanced productivity.
  • More patience for the ‘useful things’ in life.
  • Reduced stress levels.
  • More protective of the time he spends.
  • He looked into his personal bank account of time and smiled.
  • No downside.
  • More energy.
  • More focus.
  • He literally saw the leaves on the trees and felt a rush of gratitude.

Slow works.

Time to celebrate!

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Many thanks to my dear friend, Kate Rander, for pointing out a recent article in Time magazine entitled “Supertaskers: Why Some Can Do Two Things at Once“. After reading Alice Park’s piece, I went to the primary source, as I am always curious about what was not actually reported. Here’s what I found.

The University of Utah recently announced the findings of a new study that examined multitasking behavior in 200 students with a median age of 23.6. They simulated driving while talking on a cell phone (and did not fail to mention the phones they used were from Sprint PCS). What they found was that 2.5% of those who performed dual tasks actually excelled when multitasking. These so-called supertaskers performed in the upper quartile when performing a single task so they were already considered ‘special’. Add another task, however, and their performance increased notably. That means they actually thrived under split-attention conditions.

Yikes.

The paper underscores the dangers of driving while speaking on a cell phone (even hands-free) for the mere 97.5% of mankind that cannot supertask. In fact, they even take pains to quote the National Safety Council, which estimates that 1.6 million accidents and fatalities on US
highways were caused by drivers using cell phones (National Safety Council, 2010), 200,000 of which involved crashes with cell phone users who were texting. The total number of accidents and crash-related deaths due to cell phone usage while driving translates to 28%.

Researchers Jason Watson and David L. Strayer go on to say that “inattention blindness associated with cell phone conversations makes drivers unaware of their own driving impairments.” That’s research-speak for “Hey, I am not even aware of my unawareness while gabbing with my pals. I am special. I can do this!”, which is reminiscent of a smoker or alcoholic who says “I can quit any time I want, really. I can handle it!”

The researchers also admit that, in their experience, people tend to overestimate their ability to multitask: “[O]ur studies over the last decade have found that a great many people have the belief that the laws of attention do not apply to them.”

But they do.

The danger I see with this study is that those cell phone junkies who’ve got to get their fix even behind the wheel will use it to label themselves the ‘supertaskers’ they clearly aren’t. They will conveniently forget the study’s warning that “[i]t may be that supertaskers excel at multi-tasking at the expense of other processing abilities.” They will continue to believe the law of attention does not apply to them. Also, did they have to mention the brand Sprint PCS in their findings as a condition for using the company’s equipment? If yes, that’s product placement at its finest, making the findings rather questionable and convenient indeed…

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Did you know your brain has to follow four steps in the same order every time when switching from one task to another? Take a look at this graph. It’s no wonder multitaskers need to defrag at day’s end.

Many thanks to Paul Boal for this lovely multitasking graph. It illustrates how much energy you save when you go slow.  Fast is not better. It merely takes more effort!

People seem really divided on this issue. Debunking scientific research that proves the brain can only concentrate on one thing at a time, people clamor to this notion of multitasking.

“I just can’t get through the day without it,” a radio host told me yesterday during a live interview. Sounded a bit like a fixer to me! 🙂

So seriously, folks. Take the poll. Your voice counts. Shout it to the world. I want to know!

The Beast of Multitasking

January 16, 2010

The trader nervously tapped his pen on his desk as he viewed three monitors seemingly at once. Driven by his own ambition, he attempted to absorb the thousands of data points coming at him every day, until his mind became so jumbled that he made a vital mistake that cost his client millions.

It is a scene that plays out more often than we care to realize.

People who have a hard time filtering information are often fearful of missing out. Wall Street traders, in particular, are often haunted by the thought of missing the ‘big fish’. They become distracted, bouncing from one realm to the other. The good news is help is on the way in the form of one psychologist who has designed a way to sharpen their focus in eight simple steps.

Sports psychologist and peak performance coach Dr. Doug Hirschhorn works with Wall Street executives to help them improve their performance. In his new book 8 Ways to Great: Peak Performance on the Job and in Your Life, Dr. Doug outlines the eight performance principles he uses to coach today’s front-line performers in the toughest corporate jobs.

“Time is [a trader’s] only commodity,” he told me in a Skype interview. “Their number one priority is to make money and to generate substantial profits.” When feeling time-starved, people tend to make rash decisions based on emotion, not information.

Self-awareness is the first step to change, he said. He examines the trader’s personality to see where his or her strengths lie. “I help them slow their thinking process down,” he admitted. While many of them are moving a mile a minute, he helps them identify what they do best, then counsels them to concentrate on only that thing. “If you are an expert in oil, don’t trade corn,” he quipped. The key to success lies in focusing on one thing at a time.

Kill the multitasking beast. But how?

Because we were on video conference mode, he gave me the perfect visual to end the multitasking nightmare so many of us engage in. He grabbed a fistful of pens. “When I toss them into the air, try to catch them.” Obviously, I couldn’t, but I got the picture. Then he suggested I concentrate on only one of the pens. When he does this demonstration during his presentations, inevitably the participant manages to catch the one pen because the person is focused on that one thing.

That’s why multitasking doesn’t work. We try to grab all the pens at once, thereby dropping them all. We are driven by the fear of missing out and then being held accountable when things don’t work out.

“The phrase I can’t is merely avoidance of accountability,” he admitted. People who attempt to multitask are really avoiding accountability. The reasoning is if you concentrate on 100 things at once, it is easier to hide your mistakes.

The power of slow provides us with an opportunity to slow down our thinking to examine our strengths and to play to them as best we can. When we learn to delegate, we free up the time it takes to grab the ‘right pen’~ every time.

Inspired by my children, who have taught me more about the power of slow than anyone on the planet.

Multitasking Madness

September 9, 2009

Just because you’re educated, doesn’t mean you’re smart. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, the higher your education level, the higher the risk associated with cell phone use and text messaging while driving. In fact, in Matt Richtel’s New York Times article “Driver Texting Now an Issue in Back Seat,” it was reported that “48 percent of people worry about a friend or family member textingdriving unsafely. Of those people, 19 percent said the cause of their concern was multitasking behind the wheel.”

A poll taken by Nationwide Insurance of 1,500 motorists found that 48 percent of behind-the-wheel multitaskers engaged in such behavior because they felt “an urgent need to address an issue pertaining to school or work; 33 percent said they felt pressure to stay connected socially.”

Pressure to stay connected socially? For the time it takes to get from the grocery store to your house? It’s in your head, people. It really is.

The article infruriates me even more because it claims heavy multitaskers are like ‘explorers’, compelled to hunt and gather information incessantly. Does that make those of us who consciously choose to engage in safe behavior (i.e. not text while driving) somehow less inquisitive?

Puh-leez.

What did these people do before cell phones? Read novels while driving with one knee?

The jury’s not out on this one. It’s a clear case of irresponsible driving. Texting behind the wheel is dangerous.

Period.

Information overload is no longer just a symptom. It is the disease itself.

I tried to skype a friend recently. Her landline and cell phone were ringing in both her ears simultaneously. She placed her hands to both sides to block out the noise (it was fruitless). Thousands of miles away, I became overloaded by her information flow, too. I was guilty of forgetting to turn off my Tweetdeck so incessant pinging laced our Web chat.

But help is here. Information Overload Day is August 12th. Basex, a savvy company that no doubt offers purchaseable solutions to IO (that’s information overload for You Underloaded), is hosting a Web event to offset too much input.  

jugglerWhile I’m basking under the Southern sun at my family’s farm, Web conference participants who pledge not to multitask during the length of the conference get a 50% discount on their tickets (which are $50).

Mutlitasking is a myth, anyway. As my friend, whose ears were blocked by the sounds of messages singing and pinging, proved, we can only handle so much information. Hopefully, this conference will be just the thing to help others get a grip on data surfeit, too.