Are You a Multitasker?

Do you pride yourself on your ability to do lots of things at once? Many of us do, but are we fooling ourselves?

Study (verb) The act of texting, eating and watching TV with an open textbook nearby.

The way we study

There have been a number of studies conducted on the effectiveness of multitasking, and most (if not all) of them contradict the perception that those of us who pride ourselves on our ability to multitask have that we are more productive when we’re doing more than one thing at a time. Is our studying really more effective when we are also doing other things? Is our studying even as effective when we multitask?

Well, chances are, no.

According to Is Multitasking Counterproductive? | AMA, we aren’t actually capable of performing multiple tasks requiring direct focus at the same time. As opposed to walking and chewing gum, where the tasks we’re engaged in are familiar and automatic, when we try to focus our attention on two things, such as the history lecture we’re attending and texting with a friend about our weekend plans, we actually switch our focus rapidly back and forth between the tasks in which we’re engaged:

Research suggests that the very word “multi-task” is a misnomer: “There’s substantial literature on how the brain handles multi-tasking. And basically, it doesn’t…what’s really going on is a rapid toggling among tasks rather than simultaneous processing,” explains Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (Wallis 2006).

The NEA reports, in You Say Multitasking Like It’s a Good Thing,  that “recent experiments provide strong evidence that multitasking is counterproductive, particularly when at least one of the tasks involves higher-level conceptual learning.” This doesn’t mean that you can’t have music on in the background while you’re studying; music, especially music that’s wordless, can help to “drown out” other distractions, allowing you to focus on your work. However, trying to watch television while studying is likely to be detrimental to both your enjoyment of the show and your ability to remember the material.

There are three myths the NEA identifies  in You Say Multitasking Like It’s a Good Thing. The first of these is that multitasking is a time-saver. In fact, the need to continually interrupt our focus when switching tasks results in the need to “continually reorient” our thoughts, with a consequent slowdown that increases the time it takes for us to complete the entire set of tasks. The second myth is that we are able to learn just as effectively while multitasking, as when we focus on a single task. We actually learn in very different ways, depending upon whether we are focused on the material, or attempting to juggle multiple tasks; unfortunately, when we learn while multitasking, we are more likely to have “‘inferior’ learning, to the extent that it is less capable of being manipulated, organized, and applied to new and unfamiliar situations than declarative learning. In short, multitasking actually changes the manner in which people learn and retain information.” The third myth is that young people, having grown up multitasking, are better at it, that they are not subject to the same limitations with regard to efficiency and learning as older people. In contrast, a study conducted by  the Institute for the Future of the Mind found that young people are faster than older people when both groups focus on a single task, but both groups perform equally well (or, equally poorly) when scored for quickness and accuracy while performing a task that is “interrupted by a phone call, instant message, or cell phone text message.”

There’s one last very-important thing we should realize about multitasking. Multitasking may also be bad for our health. Linda Stone, an expert on the ways in which multitasking has become the norm in the corporate world, points out in Beyond Simple Multi-Tasking: Continuous Partial Attention that when “we’re engaged in two activities that both demand cognition” (she refers to this as “continuous partial attention,” while cognitive scientists call it “complex multi-tasking”), we are constantly checking our surroundings for something that is more important or interesting than our primary task. The need to be aware of our surroundings places us in a state of continuous hyperawareness or crisis. In this state our adrenalin stays at high levels, triggering the “fight or flight” response intended to help us respond appropriately to life or death situations. In an emergency, on a short-term basis, this hyperawareness can be useful, helping us to function at peak performance levels. But, when it becomes an almost constant state, it can be counter productive. Ms. Stone mentions over-stimulation, feeling unfulfilled, diminished productivity, attention difficulties, and stress-related illnesses as some of the possible consequences.

So, my recommendation: Try to focus on each individual task, whenever possible.

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