Thursday, July 22, 2021

How the Brain makes Coffee and dislikes Multitasking: A Book Review of On Task by David Badre

On Task by David Badre
For various days, which then gradually and imperceptibly but persistently morphed into months, David Badre’s book was gathering dust at the edge of my writing desk right next to my computer. It is a book that was awaiting a review and I take my self-claimed voluntary assignments very seriously, and yet, for one reason or another, I was too occupied or too busy on the job front; the various demands of the teaching profession were upon me as I wished to ensure a relatively decent living for myself and my family. As a result, I was forced to postpone this joyful and rewarding task for much longer than anticipated or expected.

This hesitance or resistance has very rarely anything to do with the quality or the subject matter of the books in question. All PR solicitations that I accept and take on are not only taken very seriously but are also of great personal and educational interest to me. I am mentioning all of this here not only to excuse my delay but mainly because of the palpable irony and apparent contradiction: the book I am reviewing is about how our brain gets things done, while, uncharacteristically, I was not getting anything done for an unusual amount of time. It is like procrastinating while at the same time finding out why one is doing so and still procrastinating, nonetheless.

First off, there is the dichotomy of work and leisure at play here. The previously mentioned example of job demands alongside work tasks was given priority over my so-called leisure activities, which significantly hindered and paused the contributions to my blog in different forms and formats, hence slowing down book reviews and interviews. The second reason is that this particular book On Task: How Our Brain gets Things done written by cogntive neuroscientist David Badre was also relatively complicated for a non-scientist like myself as I delve into the field of neuroscience not headfirst with a full-stream dive but with dipped toes and protective floaties around my arms.

And yet, David Badre’s book starts off so easy, and the hook is immediate and irreversible. He does not start with life-changing decisions or ethical dilemmas or psychological and philosophical issues and problems, no, he starts with the process of making coffee. He is also humble about his motivations (although he slightly compromises and jeopardizes that goal towards the end of the book) that the whole book is about how we do and go about doing the ordinary things in life. Keep in mind that the ordinary includes and entails some complex processes, so supposedly simple daily acts like brewing coffee or brushing your teeth are not only uniquely human; they also involve highly sophisticated brain patterns going hand in hand with specific actions and behaviors.

In fact, we tend to do the simple things in automatic fashion and without much thinking. Unless this is your first time brewing coffee or you just acquired a smart coffeemaker, the process should feel automatic to you. You have already accumulated a storehouse and library of learned response pathways ranging from the simple to the complex, and you are accustomed to it by now and can easily translate your goal and turn your desire into a concrete reality and hold a freshly brewed cup of coffee in your hand every single morning to prove it.

And yet, the devil lies in the details. We generally go about our regular business and may not think twice about or even notice that we are doing routine tasks, such as making coffee unless something goes wrong, or an unexpected event gives us pause and reflection. That unforeseen something would require problem-solving on our part because it throws a wrench into what should have been an easy and smooth process.

The proverbial wrench, just like the real one, can come in different shapes and sizes. There are some hindrances related to the completion of the task itself. God forbid but maybe we have run out of filters and forgot to replenish them last time we were at the grocery store. Suddenly, we experience conflict, and, in certain cases, the value associated with and assigned to the action may jump to the foreground, and you may question yourself.

How badly do I want that cup of coffee this morning? Are the stores open so I can get the filters that I need for coffee-making? Can we, just for today, switch to non-filter and less complicated alternatives, such as tea? Yet that is a no-go for ardent coffee drinkers like myself, and we would even drag our unwashed selves out in our PJs to stand in a queue at the closest coffee shop only to get that much-needed fix of the day.

But the brain’s analysis of cost and benefits can find other ways of circumventing the filter problem. It can suggest using the long-neglected but gloriously filter-less French press idly and patiently standing on your kitchen shelf and pleasing for occasional use. You would have to quickly run through the process itself and make sure that you have all it takes to make the switch for the day.

Other issues may be less dramatic in scope. You have not forgotten to purchase your filter, but you have placed it in a different spot and must try hard to retrace your steps from your latest shopping excursion to retrieve the much-needed object for your coffee-making needs. Our phones have trackers, would it not be great if everything in life came with a GPS?

But for the sake of argument let us assume that everything goes according to plan and the coffee-making process is flawless. It follows a clear pattern that is both chronological and hierarchical in nature. They may vary and be interchangeable, but the essential bits and pieces are the same. No matter how you prepare the coffee grounds - I, for instance, have been lately investing more time into hand-grinding my coffee beans - it is imperative that you first put the grounds and then add and run the water, and not the other way around. Then, voilĂ , a new batch of coffee shall be made, you will pour it steaming hot into your mug, you will even health challenge yourself by holding back on sugar and cream for the day and maybe even the rest of the month, or you may even forgo both altogether for the sake of potential health benefits projected onto the future.

Yet this idyllic, calm, effortless, and uncomplicated process is not what we generally experience during our hectic and stress-filled days. In reality, you would have to multitask. If you have family members, they will happily intrude and interrupt your coffee-making routine. You would have to leave things on pause or half-done and attend to their needs first and then be able to pick where you left behind. Or you may receive calls or emails from work, the ever-present looming ring and notification tones that alert you that something is in the offing, most of it harmless, but your brain would often perceive it as otherwise and consider everything as potentially dangerous and threatening.

If it is not a meltdown that interrupts your coffee-making process, you could overload yourself, either because you want to get a head start in the day or you are just bored with daily routine tasks and want something more challenging to start your day with and are looking for something to do during the idle gaps when water is filtering through your machine. So you browse your phone, read emails or snippets of news items or do some online shopping as you are waiting for your cup of coffee.

These are self-inflicted minor distractions that can potentially hold you up or even divert you from your predominant task of coffee-making. These distractions may include an urgent matter, a call to be made, a fire, literal or metaphorical, waiting to be put out in the office, a family emergency, or an unexpected, good piece of news. If it is anything major, the coffee will have to wait for a bit and in certain unusual but demanding cases be scrapped altogether, at least for the moment.

The brain was built to alternate and fluctuate between two general states of existence, stability and flexibility. We generally seek stability, but at the same time, it is important to have balance and harmony between the two states. Stability is basically your ability to focus on a given task. All other things would be background noise and distractions that you would need to filter out so that they do not interfere with your task at hand. Certainly, simple and automated tasks like making coffee will not need as many resources, nor need much concentration and focus as compared to writing emails or reports, for instance, but it is still essential to see the task through and get it done. Nobody fully enjoys a half-made coffee.

These interruptions, such as email notifications, will be then deemed in terms of their value and importance. Does it warrant halting the given task and attend to it, a clear case of flexibility, or should we continue doing what we were doing and attend to it later. In that case, we would shelve and conveniently lodge this information in our working memory, a place of limited storage that can be retrieved at will or it can pop up triggered by given contexts and situations or it could just hit us over the head like a flash of lightning or bolt of inspiration.

Yet our brain chooses, uses, and evaluates this cognitive control via a cost and benefit analysis. If the house is burning down, you must be flexible and reasonable enough to abandon your task. Forget the coffee: priority should be given to saving lives. It reminds me of an anecdote I read about a king who was supposedly so engrossed in a chess match that soldiers ended up invading and taking over the palace and killed him before he was able to checkmate his opponent. Although stability is good and even desired, we still need to be flexible and evaluate the given situation while often adjusting on the fly.

The context is very important since the same actions may not be permissible, advisable, safe, or even legal in other types of situations. Let us look at the case of texting and driving. Responding to texts is seen as normal in most aspects of our lives. In fact, it is a habit. Like Pavlov’s conditioned dog, we, metaphorically speaking, salivate, and our heartbeat increases for incoming texts and mail as we feel the urgent need to check and read them on the spur of the moment.

Yet we must be able to forgo that temptation when we are on the road. The context has changed, and we must act differently in this type of situation, if not for our own safety and the safety of our loved ones, then because the law requires it. To make that happen, we must gain and activate cognitive control by first gating the new context into the working memory. That is, we store the information in our memory and tell and remind our brain of the following: anytime I hear a ding on the phone, remind me not to respond to it immediately. Ideally, this condition shall apply until and as long as I am inside the car, but certain safe arrangements and compromises may be made in the process.

Put differently, to avoid texting or responding to text messages and phone calls while we are driving, our cognitive control system must override the learned impulse to check the phone. Hence, our specific context and situation of being on the road and driving would have to differ from the environments we are habitually used to. This is akin to control flow of computer programs where the relevant gating policy will allow the right task demands to come to the forefront, with specific conditional algorithms attached to it, such as if phone buzzes, then respond, unless driving on the road, in that case, ignore and do nothing.

Nonetheless, sometimes the habit is so ingrained and strong that we completely forget the context that we are in a car actively driving. At other times, the temptation is so strong that we cannot help ourselves. We know it is the wrong thing to do but we really want to know who is contacting us and what it is they want from us, and we give it prevalence and priority over the case and danger of distracted driving. In that case, we cannot plead ignorance and it is not just a memory lapse or failure; it is our will accentuated by the force of habit that pushes us in the unwanted or ill-advised direction. This push and pull between staying focused and being side-tracked, intentionally or unintentionally, is the story of our lives alongside the often-seen dissonance between thought and action.

What about multi-tasking? Personally, I have always suspected it to be a myth, and now, all thanks to David, I have cerebral evidence to support that claim. In fact, we are really bad at multitasking and, ironically or not, those who claim to be good at it tend to be the worst. This is mainly because our working memory has limited storage. We can only input a certain number of items, ranging from three to four memories that can be active at a time; after that, we either start forgetting or confusing them. Moreover, when we hold multiple items in mind, we would have to switch back and forth. Each time, we switch, let us say from chatting on the phone and back to the work on our computer, we would need to adjust to the circumstances and update the information in each of the contexts.

This dual-task alongside task-switching takes a toll on our brain, especially if they are bottlenecks. The same way we can fixate on only one location with our eyes at any given moment in time, there are perceptual processing limits at play here. In fact, studies show that not only is more time spent (i.e. wasted) on tasks but at the same time efficiency is reduced leading to an overall decrease in workplace productivity.

To spell it out even more clearly to all those multitask braggers and achievers out there, people take longer and make more mistakes when they attempt to do two or more tasks at the same time. The only time you can have your cake and eat it too is when the tasks are not interfering with each other and do not create a bottleneck or impasse between similar neural pathways. In other words, two activities may be able to continue without much hindrance or impediments, such as listening to classical music while writing a blog post. But others would interfere. Overall, I would not do a good job writing my article while cooking a meal at the same time. While I am trying to focus on my writing, I would have to gate the fact that food may be burning on the stove, and if push comes to shove, I may be burning down the kitchen and the whole building with it.

That being said, preparing a large meal on its very own would involve quite a bit of multitasking as one may be chopping ingredients while other food items are boiling in the pot and others roasting in the oven. One of the greatest feats of cooking is not only making sure that nothing gets burnt but that all the meals are ready and, in many cases, hot at or around the same time.

Although multitasking is inevitable in many circumstances, it is best to keep it at bay and at a minimum if you can help it. In the end, you would be doing a half-decent job instead of a good one, and the trade will simply not be worth it, neither for you nor for your employer nor for the end product and the task in question.

In fact, David gives a simple but convincing example in his book. Most of us can cite the alphabet and count to thirty easily. But if you were to combine them by saying A1 B2 C3 … you would take a considerably longer time to get the task done. My advice: better to cite the alphabet, and then, do the counting if you can help it.

It all comes down to cognitive control. It is about being aware of your habits and finding ways to manage, adjust, change, or modify them. It starts with the idea of having a healthier life and then implemented the steps to attain that goal. It is about being aware of the significant gap, dissociation, and disconnect between knowledge, thought, and action and of trying to find ways of bridging, mending, and uniting them. 

Of course, it is easier said than done, and yet, it is worthwhile and liberating to engage on a path on which we are not blindly driven by habits and automatic behaviors but on which we make the best possible choices for ourselves, our loved ones, our society, our country, and our environment. It is also about not being constantly distracted or permanently lost within labyrinthine confines of our multitask smartphone or computer but also finding the time to smell the roses and to drink the freshly brewed coffee we managed to make on that particular fine day of our lives.

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