Fatigue, Compulsion, Phones And The Internet

First, a warning. The cute companion video above only contains a fraction of the interesting points in this SHORT article.

The other day I got disgusted with some web sites that I often pop off to when I want to take a mental break. I vowed not to surf for the rest of the day. I almost made it. No surprise that I got more done, but I was shocked that by the end of the day I felt much less tired..

That incident reminded me of the article I linked to above, about how allowing yourself compulsive distractions comes at a cost. Hence this blog post.

You see, there is no such thing as “multitasking”. Computers can’t do it and neither can human brains. You can’t do more than one task at a time. You can only switch back and forth between multiple tasks, what the authors of the article call “rapid toggling”. There are always people claiming that they are the one person who can get away with “multitasking” or “rapid toggling”. Ironically, I have read in other articles on the subject that those people actually do the worst with rapid toggling. The quality and quantity of their work scored the least.  Switching back and forth between tasks comes at a cost. Rapid toggling or “multitasking” only makes sense when switching between lower order, repetitive tasks such as folding laundry while listening to music.

In one study, students temporarily interrupted during a test got scores 20% lower. Another group of students, who were told they were being watched were asked to work on their academic tasks for 15 continuous minutes. After only two minutes many students started succumbing to the temptations of their electronic devices. Only 65% of the time that they had set aside for studying actually went to studying. Frequent distractions also take a bite out of that 65% since “encoding”, the process of the brain transferring information to long term memory, gets sabotaged with interruptions.

It’s a big problem for both students and adults, Paul counters, for plenty of reasons. Assignments inevitably take longer when learners split their time between tasks, she says. All that task-switching wears out the brain and makes learners more tired and less competent. Most important, several studies have shown that information learned while partially distracted is often quickly forgotten, so the learning is tragically shallow.

This really puts an old job I had in perspective. The policy was that even if you could not address a person’s concerns immediately, you had to personally confirm receipt of their message so that they felt like they were heard. Emails and phone calls came at least once every 15 minutes. Quality of the technical work was a frequent topic of conversations, as well as people complaining about feeling “fried”.

If you want an impressive demonstration, sit down to do some work on a computer, especially in a web browser. Try to go for 15 – 30 minutes without popping off to a web site or checking an electronic device. You will probably be able to do it, but you will also notice the twitchy sensations of compulsion…several times.

So Paul is among a group of researchers who worry that the digital divide is not about the gadget haves and have nots, but rather about those who can resist the constant distracting tug of technology and those who cannot. She compares it to the famous marshmallow test, which shows that children who can delay eating one marshmallow for 10 or 15 minutes on the promise of gaining a second one are the most likely to succeed later in life. In a new “marshmallow” test, educators or employers might test to see how long people can resist “a blinking inbox or a buzzing phone.”

To me the nice thing is that ( in my opinion ) all learned habits can be unlearned. If you relax through those twitchy feelings and watch them pass you can get rewarded with having more energy and feeling calm when your work is finished.

Who doesn’t want more time to do things?  Who doesn’t want to feel more calm?  Who doesn’t want more energy.

It looks like the answer to getting at least some of those things has been around us all along.

Similar Posts:

2 thoughts on “Fatigue, Compulsion, Phones And The Internet”

  1. The cost associated with task toggling is, in computer circles, called “context switching”. It’s the cost of replacing the things in memory and caches that were there for the old task with the things for the new task. It’s the reason that, if have more threads than processor cores, and your tasks are limited by processing power, your overall throughout goes down as you increase the number of concurrent tasks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *