Multitasking… Really?

Honest… I had collected several articles for source material about multitasking but it
seems that while I was reading those, emailing readers, doing my nails, and walking the
dog… I managed to misplace them. Can I ask you to trust me?

A few months back I had the idea to do an article on multitasking. Elden had asked me
about flight training and flying, my wife had forwarded an interesting article on
multitasking, and I had witnessed several multitasking failures on the freeway during my
commute. Suddenly, Brian Catterson, editor of Motorcyclist, penned an article on a couple
of near misses he had experienced recently, and almost simultaneously, Fred Rau wrote
an article in Motorcycle Consumer News about the same topic. What was happening out
there that everyone was suddenly interested in multitasking?

For motorcyclists, our concerns about multitasking usually revolve around being aware of,
and avoiding, the 4-wheeled multitaskers we meet on the road. As Catterson and Rau
both noted, drivers on cell phones and other devices are NOT driving as well as they
probably think. As an example, I was riding on the freeway in an adjacent lane but offset
from a man in a truck talking on the phone. He probably didn’t notice, but even though he
was staying safely in his lane his speed was varying significantly. Now, maybe he’s one of
those drivers who can’t keep a steady speed, but I’ll be dollars to donuts it was because
he was trying to maintain focus on his lane while driving and talking, and speed dropped
out of his scan.

Speaking of scan, this is a subject that seems simple but really could use some thought.
What’s your scan pattern – your visual process for picking up cues while you ride? While I
could write another article on proper scanning, it’s important to note that your scan can
and should change based on the situation. Back in my flying days, my scan was
significantly different in instrument conditions than it was on clear days, and different
again on a low-level flight. Your scan pattern needs to take into account all of the truly
important variables that are critical to your riding situation, minimizing time spent on other,
less important cues. We’ll come back to this in a minute.

One of the studies I read about was conducted by a Stanford professor, using college-
aged, self-professed expert “multitaskers” who were highly intelligent, college-age young
men and women, who had been raised in the information age. The study looked at
multitaskers’ abilities to focus and not be distracted, as well as the efficacy with which they
could shift from one task to another. Bottom line upfront – They failed on virtually all
counts. They were terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; terrible at keeping
information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and terrible at switching from one
task to another.

Now, I’m sure some of you are saying “Yeah, but I can do it!” and maybe you can. But of
the three or four studies I’ve read so far, all have come to the same conclusion –
multitasking doesn’t increase (and almost certainly decreases) your efficiency and

Not only that, but turns out multitasking can be harmful to your health – and I’m not talking
about the impending rear end collision in traffic. Multitasking evokes a strong response in
the body, releasing stress hormones which in excess can lead to a host of health
problems including heart disease, insomnia, digestive problems, depression, obesity, etc.

Maybe more surprising, recent studies have identified that your brain is very active during
downtime, and this activity is crucial to allowing your brain to connect and synthesize new
information. Which is increasingly important, as one study from the University of
California, San Diego found that our consumption of information has increased 350%
from 1980-2008. Additionally, the brain also releases dopamine when stimulated, which
creates a high that you instinctively want to maintain. When the levels start to drop, we
start to look for other ways to increase stimulation levels. As you can see, this increase in
information consumption and our body’s own responses can set up a cycle of information
overload that never lets us “shut off” and absorb what we’ve experienced.

Fred Rau mentioned in his article that he had a friend who was a former naval aviator and
carrier pilot who Fred said, and I’m paraphrasing, was “one of the people who probably is
a good multitasker” pointing to his hundreds of carrier landings as proof. Well, I really like
Fred’s work but the average naval aviator is NOT a good multitasker; on the contrary, he
or she excels at compartmentalizing and prioritizing. When I started flight school back in
1989, all of the wives (at the time there were very few female aviators, and only in the
Navy and Coast Guard) were shown a movie entitled “Sex and the Naval Aviator.” Of
course, the catchy title was meant to capture the attention of their husbands, but the point
of the movie was to tell our spouses just what kind of weirdos they had married. The
services wanted these wives to realize we had some strange personality quirks that, while
helpful in the cockpit, might be annoying at home. Turns out the average naval aviator
excels at prioritizing tasks and ignoring distractions – a handy trait if you need to take out
the bridges at Toko Ri amidst a hail of anti-aircraft fire or  handle an engine fire while on
final approach to the carrier at night. On the other hand, it can be pretty frustrating to a
spouse who is wondering why her husband doesn’t seem to pay attention at times.

As a low-altitude tactics instructor, we taught our fellow pilots that they had a “bucket” of
concentration that was finite, and into this bucket they had to fit the most important task –
terrain clearance – along with mission critical tasks (e.g. arming weapons) and less
important ones like talking on the radio. If they tried to put too much in the bucket, it would
overflow. And if terrain clearance was part of the overflow, they probably weren’t coming
home from that sortie. The lower we flew, the more of the bucket needed to be filled with
terrain clearance until at some point that’s all you could do – avoid the ground. We did
NOT teach aviators to “multitask”; we taught them to prioritize and focus, ignoring the less
important tasks until they could be safely accomplished.

Training played a big role too. Not to be confused with multitasking, we trained at certain
tasks until they became ingrained in our muscle memory. If you could watch inside the
cockpit as a pilot rolls in on an attack run, you would have seen hands changing sensors,
adjusting aim point and bombing modes, dispensing chaff and flares, and activating the
radio to make calls to a wingman or the forward air controller – all at once or nearly so.
That isn’t multitasking; that is training  – the pilot doesn’t have to think about it nor take
any time away from the most important task – hitting the target.

So what’s the point? Even on today’s motorcycles we have more than enough distractions
– traffic, road conditions, the composition of the turn ahead – and we’ve added GPS,
Bluetooth communications, iPods, etc. Remember your bucket – if you are pushing the
envelope on your bike, you have to discard the irrelevant inputs. If you simply have to
take a call while riding or focus on your GPS while traveling, climb for some altitude by
dialing back your riding intensity. Focus, prioritization, and an honest assessment of your
ability to manage multiple tasks and inputs will help you become the grumpy old rider we
all hope to be!