Most people believe multitasking makes them more productive and efficient, helping them accomplish more in less time. Truth is, multitasking is a myth.
Stanford University researchers found that people who consider themselves to be great multitaskers are in fact the worst multitaskers. And there is a growing body of research by the American Psychological Association that describes how so-called multitasking is neither effective nor efficient.
Serial tasking means shifting from one task to another in rapid succession. While it’s easy to believe that you’re engaging in multiple tasks simultaneously, you aren’t. Rather, when you engage different parts of the brain at the same time, such as reading and listening to music with lyrics, for example, your ability to retain information declines significantly.
Task switching is hard on the brain. The lag time required to move between tasks takes up to 40 percent more time than single tasking, especially for complex tasks — sort of like accelerating in neutral before shifting to first gear. Or, as Walter Kirn put it in his 2007 article for The Atlantic, “like running up and down a beach repairing a row of sand castles as the tide comes rolling in and the rain comes pouring down.”
Some people rightly believe a multitasking lifestyle has changed the way they think, leaving them easily distracted and unable to concentrate, even when separated from computers and phones. Kirn says:
The next generation, presumably, is the hardest hit. They’re the ones way out there on the cutting edge of the multitasking revolution, texting and instant messaging each other while they download music to their iPod and update their Facebook page and complete a homework assignment and keep an eye on the episode of The Hills flickering on a nearby television. (A recent study from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 53 percent of students in grades seven through 12 report consuming some other form of media while watching television; 58 percent multitask while reading; 62 percent while using the computer; and 63 percent while listening to music. “I get bored if it’s not all going at once,” said a 17 year old quoted in the study.) They’re the ones whose still-maturing brains are being shaped to process information rather than understand or even remember it.
This is the great irony of multitasking — that its overall goal, getting more done in less time, turns out to be chimerical. In reality, multitasking slows our thinking. It forces us to chop competing tasks into pieces, set them in different piles, then hunt for the pile we’re interested in, pick up its pieces, review the rules for putting the pieces back together, and then attempt to do so, often quite awkwardly.
College students can’t resist the lure of multitasking, even when they are asked to stay on task and know they are being watched. Engaging in media multitasking has become so common, in fact, that most students cannot write a paper or complete a problem without task switching.
A study by Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at California State University–Dominguez Hills, found that students studied less than 6 minutes before switching to a technological distractor, task-switchers had more distractors and were more off-task, and those who accessed Facebook while studying had lower grade point averages.
Rosen says texting, emailing and posting on Facebook and other social media sites are by far the most common digital activities students undertake while learning. Two-thirds of students send between one and 10 text messages in a typical class, according to another study by the University of New Hampshire.
Some of my own students have complained, too, about being distracted by the multitasking of peers who window-switch on their laptops during lectures. This rapid-fire switching from texts to Facebook to note-taking leaves them with a sense of getting more accomplished than they actually have.
Similarly, a study of law students carried out by New York’s St. John’s University found high levels of distractions among second- and third-year students who brought their laptops to class ostensibly to take notes. Nearly 60 percent of them used the devices for other things during the course of the lecture.
Taking on more tasks at once also increases the likelihood of errors. Children perform worse on their homework if it is done while watching TV and employees show greater productivity when they don’t check their email frequently.
There may also be financial costs to multitasking — to the tune of $650 billion per year due to multitasking-induced disruptions to the economy, according to Jonathan B. Spira, chief analyst for business-research firm, Basex.
A new study found that the human brain can multitask in only one way, for visual searches. So if you’re multitasking in any other way, stop. Your brain will thank you.
*image credits: Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times