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Technology: Myth of Multitasking

Like many wired people, you probably take great pride in being a multitasker. There’s one problem: there is no such thing as multitasking -- at least not the way you may think of it. Read More

How do you think driving is

How do you think driving is something that requires no focus or thought?

Good Point!

You make a good point. Even though actions such as turning on your signal light when turning or checking your mirrors when driving may be automatic, I believe a little extra focus and thought is required to lower accident risks.

agree to some degree

Driving is automatic in that we can usually drive without conscious thought, unless something, like a danger, engages our attention. At the same time, the research does show that accidents increase when we are doing something else, like talking on a mobile phone.

And don't forget reflective thinking.....

How good to see research that appears to be able to challenge this 'multi-tasking is good' myth.

It also occurs to me that when I am apparently multi-tasking (I am trying to make myself single task but the habit is difficult to break!)one of the things that is distinctly lacking is any time for reflection on what I have just done or am doing. I am of the opinion that reflective thinking is as important as action - it is the mechanism by which I learn, improve and strategise - constantly shifting from one task to another in a futile attempt to 'do more with less' significantly decreases the time I have to reflect and consequently my ability to do anything is impaired in that way too. However, trying to convince my employer that 5 mins of stillness and silence increases my productivity is an argument I have yet to win! I would love to see research that explores the value to productivity of reflective thinking.

I totally agree. You might

FYI, due to popular outcry,

FYI, due to popular outcry, I've edited out "driving" as an example of an activity that requires no thought or focus.

turn off automatic alerts

I found that simply turning of the email chime allows me to focus longer on the task at hand. Same goes for twitstreams and RSS feeds.

multi-tasking (and short attention spans) could be anti-democratic, too!

I also fear that the penchant for multi-tasking means that no one can take in more than a very short (e.g. 140 character) message or soundbite. This makes it challenging for voters to consider important and complicated issues when making decisions about whom or what to vote for. Clever short bursts get passed around and re-tweeted without examining issues in greater detail. I would like to see a study of the impact of multi-tasking -- and the related short attention spans -- on democratic (small "D") processes and outcomes!

Men & Women

It seems that in general day-to-day life women tend to multitask more than men,example tasks on the list are:
Cook dinner
Wash the floor
Phone aunt about the latest local news
Do homework with the kids.

In most cases I see women doing it all together in less time,
and men doing it serialized, often better, but taking more time.

Is it that the female mind is better adapted to multitasking ?

Interesting insight

It might be that women have had to multitask to survive, so that "gene" was passed down through evolution.

A question about generation effects

Great article. No matter how many multi-tasking debunking articles are written, it seems that many people still do not let go of the myth.

My question Dr. Taylor is about generation effects. Are today's children better multi-taskers than their parents? In other words, does growing up in an environment with more multi-tasking essentially train--or rewire--the brain to be better at it? I have found nothing in the literature that shows that people born in, for example, the 1990s, are better multi-taskers than people born in, for example, the 1960s. (No doubt a direct comparison could not be performed at the same moment in time because of a general decline in cognitive abilities with age.)

I ask this because of the plethora of so-called "expert speakers" in educational spheres that go to colleges and schools and claim that young people today are terrific and amazing multi-taskers, light years beyond the capabilities of their parents, with the implication that today's student should be multi-tasking all the time. They claim that there are mountains of "evidence" for this, but when I ask what that evidence is, I am usually told to check Google, which I do, and which reveals nothing of the sort. Cheers!

Children today are probably

Children today are probably better multitaskers because they have grown up doing it. But, based on the evidence involving college students, they still aren't good (though they think they are). See the studies conducted by Clifford Nass at Stanford.

Yes, the brain is getting rewired, but not necessarily for the better.

Those "expert speakers" you mention either aren't informed or being honest; there is no such evidence. To the contrary, the evidence that I discuss in my upcoming book (Kids 3.0: Protect and Prepare Your Children for the Crazy New World of Popular Culture and Technology, Spring, 2012; apologies for the shameless plug) indicates that too much and unguided exposure to technology appears to cause a variety of cognitive developmental problems. Also, read Dr. Larry Rosen's work (eye opening!).

In sum, early exposure to technology will, in my opinion and review of the research, actually inhibit not facilitate children's development and ability to succeed in the wired world because it prevents the development of the necessary cognitive skills sets necessary for success, e.g., executive functioning, decision making, self-regulation, social interactions, and creativity.

But maybe I'm just a contrarian "expert speaker." Up to you to judge.

Thanks for the comment and questions.

Thanks for the response!

Thanks for the response!

Strategies to Remain Focused Rather than Multi-Tasking

I just wanted to know if you have any strategies for changing the habit of "multi-tasking". One strategy that I am familiar with is to write a To Do List and stick to the tasks on the list for at least 15 minutes without allowing yourself to be interrupted and starting something new or different.

Thank you.

Tip for focus

I'm a high school teacher and have the constant battle of pushing students to focus on one task, it has become even harder over the years as they insist on sneaking in their phones, ipods, whatever...

As opposed to battling them constantly and having an unpleasant domineering classroom presence I have a few simple tactics.

I play classical music to the entire class when they are working on a task that requires relative silence. It drowns out noises from outside the room, reduces their urge to chat and stops them asking if they can listen to music on their ipod... some of them are now quite habituated to it and ask for the music if I forget.

I place a countdown timer on the board for most tasks. If they can see it counting down it creates a sense of urgency and pressure that motivates them to get it done.

A recent one I've added is I give them a distraction pad. While they are working, if another thought or urge pops into their head I ask them to write it on the pad so they can come back to it later. This has been amazingly effective, the students really like it and feel it has increased their focus significantly as they don't feel they are 'missing out' on something else they could be doing.

Dear Duncoru Thanks so much

Dear Duncoru

Thanks so much for your excellent comments - I have used classical music in the past, but the countdown timer and "distraction pad" are great ideas. Mental focus is harder than it sounds, especially for unpalatable tasks.

I agree with Graeme!

The "distraction pad" and countdown timer are excellent ideas.

Outside of the classroom, one of the biggest changes I have made that has helped with my ability to 'single-task' is turing off all automatic alerts on everything.

My phone is always on silent, my social media alerts are turned off, I check my e-mail at certain, pre-determined time slots and I have been SO much more effective ever since.

I think that smart phones are one of the biggest distractors there are and that if we can take control of them, we will all see a huge increase in our own productivity and effectiveness...

How ro fight this with quantitative data?

Ok, in several companies i worked for, there is/was a lack of understanding about this.
Multitasking, background tasks, simultaneous tasks, parallel work, whatever each ceo, director or manager calls it, the thing is always the same. The expectation that each worker does it as requirement.

Ultimately, the persons on these roles understand numbers report conclusions. My question is, how could we gather different results of single task and multitask to present them and have the management support to move away of these horrible habbits that somethimes are even taken as required work methods?

The best thing to do is to

The best thing to do is to show your bosses the research on the ineffectiveness of multitasking. Hopefully, then, they will see the light!

Sorry to bring you guys the

Sorry to bring you guys the bad news, but your bosses won't see the light because the organizations they work for want workers to think they can really do more than one thing effectively at the same time. Multitasking as a required skill by today's companies didn't just happen by chance. They'd rather people work their backsides off doing as much as possible in a workday (but really, not doing much efficiently) rather than actually taking the time to concentrate on one thing at a time in order to do things right.

I think this is because they either don't want employees slacking and/or they want to save $$$ on manpower by making people work harder so they can hire less people. But I've always thought multitasking was a bunch of bull and it's finally good to see everyone's not drinking the Kool-Aid.

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Jim Taylor, Ph.D., teaches at the University of San Francisco.


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