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Training Fundamentals: Task Loading

We often hear the phrase ‘task loading’ in dive training. What exactly is task loading, and how do you avoid it?

It’s illegal to drive a car and use a handheld device in many regions of the world for safety reasons. While providing definitive evidence is problematic, it is likely that official statistics understate the problem. Clearly, driving a car while simultaneously trying to update your social-media feed or send a text leaves you less focused on the road. This is due to a phenomenon known as task loading, and it’s an issue in scuba diving as well.

What is task loading?

Originally summarized in 1988 by psychologist John Sweller of the University of New South Wales, Australia, cognitive load theory proposed that “as a result of higher cognitive load, a stimulus is more difficult to pay attention to.”

A ‘task load’ indicates the degree of difficulty you experience when performing a task. ‘Task loading’ describes the accumulation of tasks that are necessary to perform an operation. This loading of multiple tasks — and the subsequent distraction and stress it causes — is common when it comes to scuba diving.

Noticing incidences of task loading in diving is easier for experienced divers, technical divers and instructors. However, it’s sometimes less apparent when you’re at the beginning of your diving journey. The ‘operation’ in the context of diving is, quite simply, successfully and safely making the dive. The ‘task loading’ may increase thanks to the accumulation of any number of tasks – above or below the surface — that require a diver to divert their attention from the matter at hand. That could include anything from a newer diver trying to communicate their gas consumption to the guide while simultaneously maintaining control mid-water, to a technical diver switching stage bottles, to an instructor attempting to maintain control of a group of multiple inexperienced divers.

What problems can excessive task loading cause?

If a diver must deal with too many tasks simultaneously (or even just one task that they struggle with) stress and confusion can result. The diver may then enter a cycle of perceptual narrowing — focusing solely on trying to address one perceived problem or task — to the detriment of their overall situation in the water. This, at best, may lead to a diver giving themselves or their buddies a scare in the water. For example, a task-loaded diver may temporarily lose control of buoyancy or become separated from their buddy or group. Or, at worst, a diving accident may occur.

Almost every aspect of a dive includes some tasks from the moment you arrive on the boat or the dive shop. As a result, some task loading is inevitable. Even to gear up, buddy check and swim while simultaneously keeping tabs on your gas consumption, direction and depth requires an awareness that novice divers may struggle with. For this reason, instructors introduce task loading very gradually during initial diver training.

Task loading and new divers

At the introductory level of dive training, task loading is minimal. Instructors must ensure that divers can, for example, complete simple tasks. These can include executing a safe and controlled descent while also equalizing their ears and maintaining buddy contact. As a new diver, sometimes doing two tasks simultaneously can prove challenging.

It is not uncommon on those opening dives to see a novice struggling to control buoyancy when asked to pause, check and signal to the instructor how much remaining gas they have. The student may have reasonable buoyancy in isolation, but adding the additional task of pausing, hovering, reading and deciphering the figures on their gauge, and remembering the signal to respond with, can be enough to unsettle a diver at this stage of their learning.

Task loading and advanced divers

Moving on to an advanced open-water level or equivalent, instructors expect divers to master those initial skills. Additionally, the instructor will introduce another task to the equation, such as increased responsibility for navigation and compass use or noting the hazards and points of interest on a wreck on a dive slate while also completing the core tasks of the open-water diver, such as maintaining good buoyancy and buddy contact.

At rescue-diver level the envelope is pushed further with even more purposeful task loading. Rescue divers must deal not only with issues in their own sphere, but also with other divers’ issues as well. Someone in the water may be unresponsive, in distress, or missing from the dive, and the rescue diver must quickly and effectively undertake a search pattern.

Task loading escalates with each level of training. An instructor may be responsible for multiple tasks and the safety of multiple divers all on one dive. A technical diver must execute their plan with absolute precision while closely monitoring time and making required gas changes. A cave diver may be in a claustrophobic overhead environment using reels, lines and lights.

Planned vs. unplanned tasks

Some tasks are planned — an instructor knows she must monitor the depth and comfort of all divers in their group. Nonetheless, emergencies or unplanned tasks can occur, requiring the instructor or dive guide to perform under challenging circumstances, such as a diver experiencing distress, vertigo or separation from the dive leader.

Although he has made a detailed plan, a technical diver may have an equipment malfunction or accidentally exceed his planned depth, which may require changes to the plan on-the-fly, making gas changes or, in the event of equipment malfunctions, perform a gas shut down.

Some instructors even separate the tasks into tiers when providing training — core, foundational, critical and supplementary skills and competencies that a diver may practice and master as their training develops.

How can you avoid task loading?

  • Plan the dive conservatively. Instead of deciding on multiple tasks or objectives and attempting to shoehorn them all into the dive plan, consider the overall picture. Can you conduct the dive safely, including all those tasks and considering any contingencies or potential safety/emergency issues? Visualize how you might deal with issues and how your equipment is configured. If you can’t make the dive safely, or it is borderline on safety grounds, change your objective or don’t make the dive. Sometimes it’s just your day to skip the dive.
  • Know your equipment and test-dive it in less-demanding conditions before making that big dive you’ve been building up to. Using your equipment should be instinctive. A new dive circumstance, such as your first night dive, is not the place to try unfamiliar dive gear.
  • Talk with the people you’ll be diving with. Understand their equipment and review it in a thorough pre-dive check. Discuss how they share air in the event of an emergency – do they ‘donate’ on the signal? Or expect you to secure it from them? How is it clipped in? How does the purge button on their regulator work? Know before entering the water — it will reduce task loading and stress in the event you actually have to use the procedure.
  • Take what you need. Sometimes, less is more. It’s common to see an enthusiastic diver at the water’s edge, clipping on another torch, reel, GoPro camera with the ubiquitous selfie-stick, additional compasses, pointing sticks, strobes, shakers and maybe multiple slates and a back-up wrist mounted compass. This can leave the diver looking like the stereotypical “Christmas tree.” Bringing lots of unnecessary gear may have potentially already agitated and stressed the diver before he even enters the water for a simple recreational dive. Consider what you need for the dive, taking into account the environment and conditions described in the briefing. If the dive looks challenging, leave handheld equipment like selfie-sticks and cameras on the boat.
  • If you progress to technical diving or solo diving, you must carry back-up resources. These can include computers, reels and SMBs, gas cylinders, masks and line cutters or a knife. But additional equipment also creates the opportunity for mistakes in less-than-competent hands. Be comfortable with your equipment and know where it’s located and how to use it.
  • Plan the dive; dive the plan. Do your pre-dive checks thoroughly. Be in the right state of mind entering the water and stay on plan. If you have agreed to a maximum depth, route and run-time, try to maintain it as much as possible. Consider the dive like a flowchart of decision making. Don’t go off on an unplanned tangent unless there are exceptional circumstances or an emergency.

It is critical, whatever your level of diving, to honestly acknowledge your strengths and weakness. Every diver can learn something new and improve. Make honest assessments of your abilities and seek feedback from more experienced divers. Stay within your training and comfort zone to avoid excessive task loading and the potential problems that come with it.