Friday, September 18, 2009

Brain Rules, multitasking and cubicles

One of my favorite books is Brain Rules by John Medina. The following passage is from the book's introduction:
Most of us have no idea how our brain works.

This has strange consequences. We try to talk on our cell phones and drive at the same time, even though it is literally impossible for our brains to multitask when it comes to paying attention. We have created high-stress office environments, even though a stressed brain is significantly less productive. Our schools are designed so that most real learning has to occur at home. This would be funny if it weren’t so harmful. Blame it on the fact that brain scientists rarely have a conversation with teachers and business professionals, education majors and accountants, superintendents and CEOs. Unless you have the Journal of Neuroscience sitting on your coffee table, you’re out of the loop.

This book is meant to get you into the loop.

I've had this book for a while and recently picked it back up to re-read it. Today, this bit of the intro seemed appropriate to discuss here. Brain researchers have proven that it is (as stated above) nearly impossible for our brains to multitask. However, given the way most of us attempt to operate every day, we don't believe or accept this is true.

I was thinking about how I am constantly doing what I believe to be multitasking. For example, I listen to an audiobook during my drive to and from work. Since the book is on my iPhone, I may be interrupted by a call that comes in, so I often talk on the phone while driving. When I get to work, I switch from my audiobook to a playlist of light jazz or something else with few words (I admit that I can't quite handle music with lyrics while trying to work as I always end up singing along and forget what I am doing). I work in a "cubicle village" with about a dozen of my colleagues where we each occupy about a 5x7 foot area with a half height divider wall in between. Every sound is clearly audible throughout the village so I constantly find myself vicariously sucked into other conversations and phone calls. [That's precisely the reason why I tell myself I wear earbuds so I can drown out some of the noise.] Then, at the end of the day, I switch back to my audiobook and drive home.

What I noticed this morning was that when I got to work, I couldn't really remember the drive to get there. I did remember the predicament my audiobook's main character was in when I stopped listening, but the drive was a blur. :)

I then started thinking about my work day. There have been several times when I'll be working on something and a song or a nearby conversation pulls my attention away from what I'm doing and I end up struggling to get back on track after a few seconds (or minutes) of distraction.

In Medina's book introduction he says that we've created high-stress environments and in so doing have made ourselves less productive. I think that's true. How many of you actually have a real know, one with a door and 4 real walls? How many times a day are you distracted or completely interrupted from what you're working on because of your environment? I understand the economics behind cubicles vs offices, but I think it would be fascinating to know what the real cost is in terms of lost productivity.

I don't know that I'll give up my audiobook during my drive (and I may regret it one day if listening to it results in me being unable to avoid an accident), and I'm confident that I'll not rate an office with a door for a long while. But knowing that my brain can't multitask is apparently not going to stop me from trying to emulate the effect.


Martin Berger said...

I will try to answer your question (and another you have not asked):
I have a real office and share it with 4 co-workers.
Everytime my phone calls ore someone drops in to asks me a question, I run out of the office to the floor, a kitchen or whatever to do the converstation an don't disturb the others. I want them to work and not being disturbend from me.
The not asked question is an effect of overload I sometimes feel: If I have to many open tasks, I feel as just re-scheduling my queue without finishing any task. In contrary to an ordinary scheduler, I need quite a couple of time to switch tasks. With too many open tasks and too many drop-in conversations I finish my day with a feeling of having not done anything.
Even I don't knw the book I'm sure this is one of the effects mentioned there.

Karen said...


So, you don't really have your own office AND you are a very polite co-occupant! I think being that courteous is most wonderful (and most unusual in my experience). :)

I agree with your assessment of the effect of overload and the book does refer to that topic.

But, what are you gonna do except keep on keepin' on, right?!

Kerry Osborne said...

I really enjoyed this one. I can't listen to music and work at all! Maybe it's because I play an instrument, but I find myself thinking about how the piece is played. It's very distracting for me. (I do occasionally put on ear phones though, just to discourage interruptions). I'm pretty good at ignoring what's going on around me when I am working on something, but that may just be a character flaw. My wife thinks I'm being rude I don't hear her until the third time she asks me a question.

I'll have to check out that book by the way. If you like that kind of stuff you might want to check out Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks as well.