If a picture is worth a thousand words, a live demonstration may be worth ten thousand words. In a recent situational awareness and decision making class, I was explaining to the participants the science behind why humans are such poor multitaskers.
Of course, when I do this there is always someone in the class who, for whatever reason, thinks they’re great at multitasking. I love it when this happens because I’m prepared.
For this scenario I set up an exercise where two people get to role play being in charge of an emergency. One of them is going to multitask (guess which one gets that dubious honor?) and the other one gets to perform only a single task.
The multitasking person has to perform the same activities as the single tasking person and one additional (physical activity). The results are always predictable… a train wreck.
The single tasking person’s performance is always nearly flawless while the performance of my multitasking participant always turns into a disaster. The multitasker forgets about 90% of the data they were supposed to remember and their performance is fraught with error. It’s sad and unfortunate.
The simple fact is, the conscious human brain cannot multitask, plain and simple. This is backed up by science and the analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) data.
Responders can be lulled into believing they are good multitaskers because they do it so often with so little consequence that it gives them the confidence to think they are good at it. Where, in reality, they’re not good at it and luck is the only thing standing in the way of a disaster.
Chief Gasaway’s Advice
Concede to the vulnerabilities of the human brain. Acknowledge that multitasking is a myth and avoid it by focusing on performing one critical task at a time. Proper staffing plays a big role in efforts to avoid multitasking. Preloading an incident with the proper number of responders will reduce the exposure to the need to perform multiple concurrent tasks.
1. Why do people think they are good multitaskers when, in fact, their brain cannot multitask at all?
2. What can first responders do to avoid multitasking during high stress, high consequence operational periods?
3. Describe how your situational awareness has been impacted by multitasking.
The mission of Situational Awareness Matters is simple: Help first responders see the bad things coming… in time to change the outcome.
Safety begins with SA!
Share your comments on this article in the “Leave a Reply” box below. If you want to send me incident pictures, videos or have an idea you’d like me to research and write about, contact me. I really enjoy getting feedback and supportive messages from fellow first responders. It gives me the energy to work harder for you.
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4 thoughts on “Multitasking Impacts Situational Awareness”
Hey, Rich —
Around 42 B.C., Pubilius Syrus wrote: “To do two things at once is to do neither.” It’s as true today as it was then.
I’m really impressed with the work you’re doing these days. Sharing good concepts that make a difference, and literally can save lives. Huzzah!
Next time you’re in the DC area, we ought to get together for a cup of coffee. Or a beer, or whatever.
Thanks for the quote, the note and the kind words. I really appreciate it. I was just in the DC area doing a program so that was a missed opportunity. I’ll make a note for my next visit, for sure! ~ Rich
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