Automaticity: The Impact of Distractions on Work and Driving

Are we there yet?

The ability to do one thing on autopilot while doing something else is referred to as automaticity. While experienced drivers can hold conversations and listen to the radio while driving, novice drivers cannot. Indeed, many new drivers turn off the radio and ask passengers not to talk to them. They also don’t make phone calls or try to send text messages.

Automaticity does not mean that distractions – while driving or otherwise – do not have an impact. Brain scans by neuroscientists studying this issue have shown that the brain has difficulty paying attention to sights and sounds at the same time. If the brain is focused on a visual task, its ability to handle an auditory task decreases markedly, and vice versa.

In the course of writing my book Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization, I attempted to determine the impact of distractions and replicated an experiment that NPR had conducted a few years earlier. I played the piano.

Playing the piano involves a similar amount of hand-to-eye coordination as well as coordination between hands and feet (for pedals, in both cases). Playing the piano also has a similar amount of automaticity as driving. I have played the piano since I was five years old and I have been driving since the age of 16. Even when I am out of practice, I can still sit down and play many of the Beethoven Sonatas I memorized for performances years earlier.

Essentially, I played the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and had a friend ask me increasingly complex questions. Being asked simple arithmetic questions threw off my tempo completely. It was impossible to play Beethoven’s intricate arpeggios and do simple arithmetic simultaneously.

Recently, I came across a video prepared by Farmers Insurance as part of its University of Farmers online efforts. Hosted by Prof. Nathaniel Burke, who is portrayed by actor J.K Simmons, the Distracted Driving video cites some statistics (distracted driving “accounts for 25% of car crashes”) and some root causes (“music, cellphones, food”). It shows a man driving while an increasing number of distractions appear, including a boom box located directly behind the driver’s head, a drink being spilled on the driver, a few people poking the driver with long sticks, and a mobile phone.

After a man wearing a Hawaiian shirt jumps into the car and starts dancing in his seat, the car (not unsurprisingly) crashes.

While most drivers don’t face this number of distractions on a regular basis, the video (which is 30 seconds in length) does an excellent job of driving home the point that, simply put, distractions distract. Given that a typical knowledge worker may be subject to almost as many distractions while at his desk as the Farmers Insurance driver faces in the video, it’s amazing we’re able to get any work done at all.


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