The blank stare. Divers assume this expression when they have absolutely no idea what idea I am trying to communicate underwater. This look usually involves furrowed eyebrows, a slight head tilt, and a gaze of vapid incomprehension. I most frequently encounter the blank stare when I flash an okay sign at a new diver near the beginning of the open water course. What, his look says, is that crazy lady doing with her hands in that funny little circle? Why does a diver who has practiced signaling "okay" on the surface, in the pool, and on the boat suddenly forget everything? The answer is task loading, and simply put, it makes us all a little stupid underwater.
Task loading, in layman's terms, is trying to do too many things at once. When a diver is overwhelmed with stimuli or activities underwater, he can become confused and unable to complete simple tasks or comprehend basic communication. I see this most frequently in new divers, who are so amazed by the incredible underwater world that they forget information and dive skills they had mastered in the pool or on the surface.
However, task loading also effects experienced divers, especially divers attempting complicated or multi-step tasks. Divers engaging in new activities, such as underwater photography, or a complicated group of tasks, such as releasing a surface marker buoy while hovering at one depth, will often find they lose control of other aspects of their diving. This happens when a diver focuses intently on one activity, and stops paying attention to everything else.
What is the solution to task loading? There are three main ways to avoid task loading. The first is to have mastered basic techniques to the point that the diver does them unconsciously. Using the example of photography, a diver must master his buoyancy, trim, swimming technique, and depth/tank pressure monitoring to the point that he no longer has to think about them. Otherwise, the moment he is distracted, he will lose his awareness and control.
The second way to avoid task loading is to break complicated tasks down into individual steps, and to only attempt one step at a time. An example is releasing a surface marker buoy. The first step is to check buoyancy and position. The next step is to unclip the buoy and reel from your buoyancy compensator (BC) or harness. The next step is to unfurl the surface marker buoy. The next step is to unlock the reel or spool. The next step the hold the reel correctly. The next step is to inflate the buoy, etc. The concept is to only make one action at a time. A diver should not try to unclip a surface marker buoy and fix his buoyancy at the same time. He shouldn't try to take a picture with a surface marker buoy in his hand. Finish each step of a task before beginning the next one, and only attempt one step at a time.
The final way to avoid task loading is to slow down. Do not attempt to rush through the steps of a complicated procedure. Divers who hurry through activities frequently miss steps or end up trying to do two things at once. In almost every case, a diver who calmly thinks through each step will be more efficient (and actually complete the task more quickly) than a diver who rushes. When attempting a complicated task, first check the essentials -- your buoyancy, swimming position, time, depth, pressure, and the location of your buddy. Next, deliberately think through the first step of your task, complete the step, and be sure you have stowed all your gear properly before moving on to the next step. Then, think "What is the next step?" Think it through and plan it deliberately. This sounds like a lot of work, but once a diver has trained his mind this way, he becomes far more efficient and effective.
Much of diving focuses on repetition and step-by-step processes for these reasons. Student divers practice skills in their open water courses over and over, first in the pool and then in the ocean. The goal is to make these exercises automatic and the steps sequential.
As an instructor, I do my best to teach through repetition. I hope that this will make my divers safer and less likely to encounter task loading in the future. In the end, however, it is a diver's attitude towards safety and practice that will determine whether he faces this problem. Practice safety skills and pay attention to dive briefings, even when the guide or instructor explains seemingly obvious things. There is a reason we repeatedly go over basic information with divers: task loading makes us all a little stupid underwater.