MANAGEMENT

University of Iowa helps NASA understand the cost of task switching… in space

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Houston, we have a problem: Task switching in space can be disastrous.


By U2B Staff 

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There are opportunity costs to task switching – every business should know this. 

When you switch from one task to another, there’s a higher risk for error in the latter task because you’d most likely still be thinking about that first task. When you add more tasks to the list, it goes without saying that there’s an even higher likelihood of mistakes building up.

Whilst some mistakes can certainly be costly in an office job, chances are, the error is minor enough to be fixed right away. 

But the same isn’t true when astronauts on a mission to Mars make mistakes, or those in other high-risk occupations such as firefighters or surgeons. 

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“With most of us, if we don’t transition super cleanly, it’s no big deal,” says Daniel Newton, assistant professor of management and entrepreneurship in the University of Iowa’s Tippie College of Business in Iowa Now.

“But in some jobs, it could be disastrous.”

Disastrous is right and for this reason, NASA has commissioned Newton to investigate what happens during task switching and how to help astronauts refocus 100 percent of their attention on the new task, without adding the risk of error.

The academic has a five-year US$900,000 grant from NASA for the research where he studies the engagement of astronauts and cosmonauts working on the International Space Station (ISS), and other NASA crew who live in long-term isolation facilities in Houston and Moscow.

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For the research, Newton asks crew members, who are working in close proximity and for long periods at a time, how they stay engaged and how task switching affects them.

“I think that’s when mistakes happen,” one ISS astronaut said in an interview, according to Iowa Now.

“It’s because you’re not fully engaged, and… you move from one thing to the next to the next. It’s hard to keep your head in one game after the other after the other after the other.”

Newton notes it is difficult for crew members to transition smoothly from one task to another, as it is in any kind of job, especially when the first task hasn’t been completed. The high-pressure environment, he says, adds to this difficulty.

“There’s so much going on in an astronaut’s day, it’s so regimented, that it can be hard to easily switch from one task to another,” says Newton. “And then you have mission control in Houston watching everything you do.”

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Newton’s work is part of a larger body of research being done by NASA on how its astronauts can work collaboratively in close quarters for months on end. Findings from the research will be used to plan long-duration space missions on the ISS and on a mission to Mars, which takes about two years.

What’s interesting about Newton’s research is that it has applications in the business environment as well. In a recent paper he published, Newton and his co-authors suggested that workers perform more engaging tasks earlier in the day when they have more energy to focus on the work.

Checking emails, they wrote, should not kick off the workday as it is a low-energy activity and would typically require very little mental power.

According to the Daily Iowan, Newton’s grant from NASA is the first project the Tippie College of Business is working on with NASA. Although the grant and project is nearing its end now, Newton expects to continue his work.