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Five Reasons We Multitask Anyway

Frequent multitaskers are bad at it. So why do they do it?

In my last post, I argued that multitasking was like "Mining Your Inner Moron," arguing that it's inefficient, ineffective, and stressful. But why do we try to do it anyway? Here are some possibilities:

1) Employers think they need people who can multitask.

Most computer screens have many applications open at the same time.

Many employers put "must be good at multitasking" in their job postings. Their thought may be that they need people who are ready to respond quickly to anything that comes up. This may be helpful in some cases. However, if what you want from your employees is productivity or creativity, you won't get it if you're constantly interrupting them or asking them to focus on two things at a time. In my last post I explained how multitasking allows only lower levels of brainpower to be focused on each task. What employers should be looking for instead of good multitaskers is people who can create and manage work on multiple fronts during the day—not people who try to work simultaneously on more than one thing.

2) It's so convenient - I mean, it's right there in your hands.

Everything's right there in your hand.

You hardly have to move a finger to find out how your team did, what tomorrow's weather will be, or what's on sale at your favorite store. And, it's only going to take a second, and then you can get right back to what you're doing . . . Um, not so much. It's been estimated that it takes more than 20 minutes to get back into the flow of what you're working on after an interruption at work.[1]

3) We've become impatient.

Are you old enough to remember when we had to go all the way to the library to find out something we didn't know? And we had to locate books on shelves and then look in the index and turn pages to find what we were looking for? Now, we just need to enter a word or two in Google. And we're so used to instantaneous digital searching that we can no longer even fathom the idea of dial-up Internet access. These days, if we're listening to someone who's a slow talker, we check our email in the pauses. . . . Productivity and creativity require intense focus. But if we can't tolerate that quiet concentration anymore, we've got something at our fingertips to fill any quiet moment.

4) We are convinced that the bad rap on multitasking is a hoax perpetrated by oldsters, who just don't get it.

Every older generation has foreseen the swift decline of civilization in whatever young people were doing. Can it be that kids, who have used computers all their lives, are different—that their brains function differently? In one sense younger people are better multitaskers. That's because working memory, which is important for keeping the other task in mind when you're switching back and forth, peaks at the age of 25.[2] So, with a larger working memory capacity, young people don't lose as much information every time they switch. But they still lose information and slow themselves down.

Young people aren't good at multitasking either

Have young people trained themselves to be better multitaskers? Can anyone? Probably not. Researchers at Stanford compared the performance of students who said they multitasked a lot to a group who said they hardly ever multitasked on three tests that involved multitasking. Surprisingly, the frequent multitaskers performed more poorly on all three tests.[3] The researchers seemed shocked. Apparently, then, people do not multitask because they're good at it. They do it for some other reason.

5) People are bored.

A saying I've found all over the web goes:

"Multitasking is the art of distracting yourself from two things you'd rather not be doing by doing them simultaneously."

I think this is one reason why multitasking is so popular. We don't feel like doing that work, so we watch TV at the same time to make it seem less tedious. The problem is, it takes us longer to do the work, and we do it poorly. Plus, we don't really enjoy the TV show because we keep missing the best parts. . . .

So why not record the show, while you concentrate on your work. Then, if you watch the show and skip the commercials, you may actually come out ahead in time as well as in the quality of the work and your enjoyment of the entertainment experience.

Is the Internet making us dumber or smarter? See my next post, "The Fault, Dear Brutus, Is Not in Our Gadgets But in Ourselves."

. . .

In a later post, I'll talk about techniques for approaching students who are wedded to their gadgets and have never known life without multitasking. In the meantime, for more strategies for reducing multitasking and achieving more with less effort, check out Conquer CyberOverload.

[1] Gloria Mark, in Pattison, K. (2008). Worker, interrupted: The cost of task-switching.

[2] [2] Klingberg, T. (2009). The overflowing brain: Information overload and the limits of working memory. (Translated by Neil Betteridge). London: Oxford University Press.

[3] Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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