Doug Parry, an information scientist at the University of Stellenbosch, South Africa, says that humans “…can’t multitask. What we’re doing is rapid task switching”. So, the next time you’re checking social media during a meeting and think you’re paying attention, know that you’re really not. Via Business Insider.
Parry, whose recently published paper on how to self-regulate media multitasking, compares the cognitive processes of the human mind to the RAM of a computer.
“You’ve loaded all the thoughts, memories of that task, but if I switch over to my phone, I load out everything to do with the task I was doing,” he says.
With this process of switching there is an inherent cognitive cost. Known as the ‘switch cost’, this is the mental toll your mind takes when shifting from one task to another. Parry further explains that shifting between tasks that have less to do with each other will result in a higher cost.
For example, the cost of being in a meeting and quickly looking through 9Gag for memes is higher than watching a football game and skimming through comments about the game on Twitter. This is because watching football and reading about football keeps you focused on the same thing.
The more you switch the larger the effect is.
“If you’re [task switching] 20, 30, 40 times, you’re going to be affecting your performance,” Parry says. “Whether you’re a student or a person in the working world, we need to filter out these distractions and focus on what we’re doing.”
According to a 2018 review into people’s minds and their multitasking, it was found that, on average, the people whose minds were multitasking more on multiple media did not do their jobs as well as the people who were lighter media multitaskers. Those who multitasked on many different devices were found to be easily distracted and had poorer long-term memory recall.
Parry’s research isn’t just to call all this to light however, it is mostly aimed at finding ways for people to help themselves regulate their media usage.
During his research, he found that people are generally unaware of how often and regularly they switch between tasks, how often they will stop what they’re doing and check their phones. “Most people have a terrible understanding of their own behaviour,” he says. Stating that therefore the first step to regulate yourself is to monitor how often you check your phone, email or media device.
There are also apps that can help you limit your media multitasking. Known as ‘restricting apps’, Parry recommends two – SelfControl and Cold Turkey. These apps enforce certain ‘blackout times’, for example from 08:00 to 17:00 while you’re at work and can even block distracting websites like Twitter and Facebook.
Parry also wants to make sure that people don’t push themselves too far. Each person’s mental media multitasking is different. It is important for people to understand themselves and the moments in which they are trying and failing to multitask.
It is also important not to be too overzealous with self-restrictions. Some people set too many restrictions too quickly and fail to meet their targets, becoming disheartened and abandoning their objective to slow their multitasking in the process. Parry says your goals must be reasonable and attainable
Parry is taking steps to continue his work on focusing on solutions for companies. Perhaps this will make him a very unpopular person within offices around South Africa. He says, “If you feel this is something you are constantly failing at, readjust your goals.”
Edited by Luis Monzon
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