So much to do, so little time

February 4, 2012

My current project is currently in an intensive coordination phase. Each of the last several Tuesday’s the design team has meet to resolve numerous conflicts in the design. The structural design must accommodate many unforeseen issues, including: large mechanical duct openings through load-bearing walls, below-slab conduit and plumbing lines, site dewatering, restricted construction access at the property line, value engineering options, etc.

Our coordination meetings begin at 8:00. I have yet to leave earlier than 1:30. With so many structural conditions, I really have to be “on” the entire time. By the end of the meeting, I’m exhausted and hungry. When I get back to the office, I check my email, do a few side calculations for other projects, check in with my boss, and somewhere in between try to download the gist of the morning meeting to my team. As we discuss how to proceed with the work, I must repeat myself or start speaking in circles, because I get some pretty strange looks from my colleagues.

I finally realized what these meetings were doing to my concentration, when, at the end of the day, I approached another colleague whose name had come up in the earlier coordination meeting.

“Edward,” I began, “Ed Peck is going to call you.”

“Who?” my colleague responded quizzically.

“Ed Peck, you know the architect from Boston,” I shot back, somewhat annoyed. I knew they had spoken not too long ago.

“Did you say Beck? Can you spell the name?”

Of course! I played along, “P-E-C-K!” And then it hit me. Edward Peck is the name of my colleague, the one I’d been speaking to the whole time. Boy, I really felt silly. I chalked it up to having so much to do and so little time; I couldn’t concentrate.

Recent scientific studies on the effects of multitasking have concluded that my experience is predictable. Heavy media multitaskers perform more poorly on a range of memory tests than people who focus on fewer tasks. In fact, says Clifford Nass, one of the Stanford team, “[heavy multitaskers] are suckers for irrelevancy.” This conclusion is contrary to the popular belief that multitaskers are better able to navigate the new perpetually wired-in world. I was clued into this bombshell by an article by Adam Gorlick, republished by Modern Steel Construction.

Over the years, scientists have shown that the brain cannot process more than one string of information at a time. However, many people countered that multitaskers must have a special ability to control their focus, store and organize information, and/or filter out irrelevant information. On the contrary, the Stanford study concludes that multitaskers perform poorly in three tests designed to evaluate each of these hypothesis independently. Heavy multitaskers consistently underperformed light multitaskers. Eyal Ophir, the study’s lead author concluded, “[the heavy multitaskers] couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing.”

The researchers are still studying whether chronic media multitaskers are born with an inability to concentrate or have damaged their cognitive control. Let’s hope that distracted thinking is a reversible condition – or perhaps my condition had more to do with an empty stomach. Still, the message is clear: by doing less, you might accomplish more.

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1 Comment
  • Multi-task seemed like such a great accomplishment not so recently. I have read similar articles that identify additional challenges and problems for multi-taskers.

    Modern textbooks are filled with multi-colored and photo graphics, side notes, margin notes, & frills that distract me a great deal. I would never even get to the videos and websites that a reader is directed. I do not realize how a student even gets through reading such a text. Maybe reading is too passé. I would not want a textbook of the more senior engineers who I have worked under either with virtually no graphics at all so I must have been in school during the happy middle phase of textbook evolution.

    Google, Facebook, Twitter, texting, IM; just the patience to work a solution that is something other than one equation without getting off on a tangent (not a tangent where a line intersects an arc at just one point) may be fading away. The answer might be on Wikipedia though, thank goodness!

    Sidenote: I thought about, but did not, listen to music while reading and responding to this blog entry.

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