The Multitasker's Dilemma

For everyone who thinks they're maximizing their time by texting while driving, or posting Tweets and Facebook updates while compiling sales data in another window, or cooking while watching TV, cognitive scientists beg to differ. Multitasking isn't just ineffective, it can be dangerous. 

 

Is Multitasking Dumbing Down the World?

The downside of multitasking

This past week, Steve Chawkins of the LA Times wrote an article on the life and death of Dr. Clifford Nass, a Stanford professor who was one of the first educators to warn of "the dangers of chronic multitasking," and relatedly, the decrease in face-to-face interactions. Sadly, Dr. Nass died of a heart attack on November 2nd in Lake Tahoe. He was just 55 years old.

In honor of his work, this post provides a brief outline of his research on multitasking as it is highly relevant to the lives of high-achievers, who are the kings and queens of multitasking.

Dr. Nass, who was the director of the Communication between Humans and Interactive Media (CHIMe) Lab at Stanford, began as a professor at Stanford in 1986, but it was his work as a freshman dorm counselor in 2007 that sparked his interest in multitasking. Noticing how connected students were to their electronic gadgets, using many of them at the same time, he began wondering how they were able to do so many things at once when he was so bad at it. 

Dr. Nass began studying chronic media multitaskers (which he defined as people who use multiple forms of unrelated media at the same time) and discovered that while most multitaskers think they're quite adept at multitasking, they're actually the worst at it. In a 2009 NPR interview, Dr. Nass described his findings as "very frightening," explaining:

We're not sure whether these abilities [multitasking] are built in the brain or whether in fact, practice makes them, in this case, not perfect, makes them worse at it. We just don't know that—that's one of the key areas. But there's no question whatsoever that multitasking, especially among those who do it the most, is at the very least ineffective and at the worst, harmful.

Dr. Nass noted that although he didn't ask subjects to do "anything close to the level of multitasking they were doing [normally on their own]," they still showed impaired cognitive processing, which is necessary for effective multitasking and deep thought. His research looked at three skills: filtering, working memory management, and task switching. Filtering is the ability to focus on the relevant and ignore the irrelevant. Working memory management is the ability to organize information and retrieve it efficiently. Task switching involves the speed at which someone is able to move from one task to another. In all three areas, Dr. Nass and his colleagues found that multitaskers performed quite poorly.

In an NPR interview, Dr. Nass described multitaskers as "suckers for distraction and suckers for the irrelevant, and so the more irrelevant information they see, the more they're attracted to it." He also discovered that multitaskers tend to be worse at managing their working memory and slower at switching from one task to another.

As noted in Chawkins's LA Times article, Dr. Nass was especially concerned to find that "people who regularly jumped into four or more information streams had a tougher time concentrating on just one thing even when they weren’t multitasking. By his estimate, 'the top 25 percent' of Stanford’s students were in that category." He also discovered that freshman who were chronic multitaskers showed poorer writing skills (i.e., tended to write shorter sentences and disconnected paragraphs).

Probably his biggest concern, however, was the long-term impact of multitasking on current and future generations. He noted that even very young children regularly use electronic gadgets and it's quickly becoming a means of social interaction in younger age groups. As quoted by Chawkins, Dr. Nass worried, “We could essentially be undermining the thinking ability of our society. We could essentially be dumbing down the world.”

Although fellow PT blogger Jim Taylor, in his article, "The Myth of Multitasking," does recommend some caution about the external validity of Dr. Nass's research, Dr. Nass's findings should give all of my high-achievers out there some pause. As Dr. Taylor notes:

Though questions still exist and there is still a need for further study, the preponderance of evidence does suggest that multitasking isn't all it's cracked up to be. With all things considered, I believe there is enough evidence to support the notion that other approaches to task completion can be more effective and efficient than multitasking.

In his work with top high-achievers in sports, technology, and business, Dr. Taylor recognizes that although top performers want to be productive and efficient, they also place a high value on being the best in their fields. "Even a 1% improvement in their performance or productivity can mean dramatic differences in output," says Taylor, "and I have found that single tasking, meaning focusing only on those tasks that are absolutely essential to maximize performance, is an effective tool for making small, yet profound gains in productivity."

Words of wisdom to live by from two professors who know what they're talking about.

© 2013 Sherrie Bourg Carter, All Rights Reserved

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Sherrie Bourg Carter is the author of High Octane Women: How Superachievers Can Avoid Burnout (Prometheus Books, 2011).

The Multitasker's Dilemma