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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Multitasking Doesn't Work

I am the father of two teenagers, which means I have a fair amount of experience observing them "multitask." Typically, this means they are doing homework, eyeing their cellphones for text messages, answering incoming messages -- and perhaps listening to music too.

This doesn't seem especially productive to me -- and there's now a good deal of academic research that backs up my impression.

Former Yale English Professor and current literary critic William Deresiewicz condemned "multitasking" last year when speaking to cadets at West Point (published in the spring 2010 The American Scholar and reprinted recently in Utne Reader). He's read some of the literature:
[A Stanford study team of researchers] separated the subject group into high multitaskers and low multitaskers and used a different set of tests to measure the kinds of cognitive abilities involved in multitasking. They found that in every case the high multitaskers scored worse. They were worse at distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information and ignoring the latter. In other words, they were more distractible. They were worse at what you might call “mental filing”: keeping information in the right conceptual boxes and being able to retrieve it quickly. In other words, their minds were more disorganized. And they were even worse at the very thing that defines multitasking itself: switching between tasks.

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.
Around the same time I read that essay, I listened to part of a multitasking story on NPR featuring David Meyer of the University of Michigan. NPR reports that Meyer "has spent the past few decades studying multitasking." He is not keen on it:
"For tasks that are at all complicated, no matter how good you have become at multitasking, you're still going to suffer hits against your performance. You will be worse compared to if you were actually concentrating from start to finish on the task," Meyer says.

Multitasking causes a kind of brownout in the brain. Meyer says all the lights go dim because there just isn't enough power to go around.
While searching for the link to that NPR story, I came across another one featuring Earl Miller a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT.
"People can't multitask very well, and when people say they can, they're deluding themselves," said neuroscientist Earl Miller. And, he said, "The brain is very good at deluding itself."

...What we can do, he said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.

"Switching from task to task, you think you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you're actually not," Miller said.

"You're not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly."
A University of London study found that people distracted by incoming phone calls or email messages lost about 10 IQ points. Another study found that switching tasks made students 40% less productive at solving math problems.

Multitasking increases stress and frustration as well, with potentially adverse consequences for health.

Kids, please just try doing one thing at time.

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