Multitasking: The Illusion of Efficacy
I don’t know if you caught it the other night when you were watching the news while skimming your email, checking your twitter and RSS feeds, and updating your Facebook status, but there was an interesting story about multitasking. Silly me, who actually watches the news anymore? Anyways, much of the recent buzz on this endemic behavior (among the technologically savvy) is not good. Multitasking is a paradox of sorts – where we tend to romanticize and overestimate our ability to split attention among multiple competing demands. The belief goes something like this: “I’ve got a lot to do and if I work on all my tasks simultaneously I’ll get them done faster.” However, what most of us fail to realize is that when we split our attention, what we are actually doing is dividing an already limited and finite capacity in a way that hinders overall performance. And some research is showing that chronic multitasking may have deleterious affects on one’s ability to process information even when one is not multitasking (Nass, 2009).
Advances in computer technology seem to fuel this behavior. If you do a Google search on multitasking you will get a mix of information on the technological wonders of machines that can multitask (AKA computers) mixed with news regarding how bad media multitasking is for you.
Think about it. There has been increasing pressure on the workforce to be more productive and gains in productivity have been made lockstep with increases in personal computing power. Applications have been developed on the back of the rising tide of computer capacity, thus making human multitasking more possible. These advances include faster microprocessors, increased RAM, increased monitor size, the internet itself, browsers that facilitate the use of multiple tabs, relatively inexpensive computers with sufficient power to keep open email, word processing programs, Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and YouTube. Compound these tools with hardware that allows you to do these things on the go. No longer are you tethered to the desktop computer with an Ethernet cable. Wifi and 3G connectivity allow all the above activities almost anywhere via use of a smart phone, laptop, iPad, or notebook computer. Also in the mix are devices such as bluetooth headsets and other headphones that offer hands free operation of telephones.
Currently, technology offers one the ability to divide one’s attention in ways inconceivable only a decade ago. The ease of doing so has resulted in the generalization of this behavior across settings and situations including talking on cell phones while driving, texting while driving, texting while engaged in a face to face personal interactions, and even cooking dinner while talking on the phone. Some of these behaviors are dangerous, some rude, and all likely lead to inferior outcomes.
Don’t believe it? If you don’t, you are likely among the worst skilled of those who multitask. “Not me!” you may claim. Well research has shown that those who routinely multitask are also the most confident in their ability to do so (Nass, 2009). But when you look at the products of these “confidently proficient” multitaskers, you find the poorest outcomes.
Multitasking involves shifting attention from one task to another, refocusing attention, sustaining attention, and exercising ongoing judgment about the pertinence and salience of various competing demands. Doing this successfully is exceptionally difficult and is likely well beyond the capacity of most typical human beings. Our brains can only generally concentrate on one task at a time, and as such, multitasking necessitates devoting shorter periods of time on dissimilar tasks. As a result, overall effectiveness, on all tasks is reduced.
Researchers at the University of Michigan Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory, including Professor David E. Meyer, point out that the act of switching focus itself has deleterious effects. When you switch from task A to task B you lose time in making the transition and the completion time of the transition itself increases with the degree of complexity of the task involved. Depending on how often you transition between stimuli, you can waste as much as 40% of your productive time just in task switching (APA, 2006).
Shorter periods of focus reduce overall time on task and each transition reduces this time further. Dr. Glenn Wilson at the Institute of Psychiatry, University of London in 2005 discovered that his subjects experienced a 10-point fall in their IQ when distracted by incoming email and phone calls. This effect size was “more than twice that found in studies of the impact of smoking marijuana” and was similar to the effects of losing a night’s sleep (BBC, 2005).
As for the negative long term affects of multitasking, Dr. Nass noted that:
“We studied people who were chronic multitaskers, and even when we did not ask them to do anything close to the level of multitasking they were doing, their cognitive processes were impaired. So basically, they are worse at most of the kinds of thinking not only required for multitasking but what we generally think of as involving deep thought.”
Nass (2009) has found that these habitual multitaskers have chronic filtering difficulties, impaired capacity to manage working memory, and slower task switching abilities. One must be careful to avoid the Illusion of Cause in this situation. Correlation is not causation and we must avoid inferring that multitasking causes these cognitive declines. The reverse may be true or other undetected variables may cause both.
Much of the research in this area is in its infancy and thus limited in scope and depth, so it is prudent to be a bit skeptical about whether or not multitasking is bad for you. But with regard to the efficacy of multitasking – when you look at the issue from an anecdotal perspective, apply the tangentially related evidence logically, and then consider the data, you have to conclude that multitasking on important jobs is not a good idea. If you have important tasks to accomplish, it is best to focus your attention on one task at a time and to minimize distractions. To do so, avoid temptation to text, tweet, watch TV, check your email, talk on the phone, instant message, chat on Facebook, Skype, or otherwise divide you attention. If you believe employing these other distractions helps you do better, you are deluding yourself and falling victim to the reinforcement systems that make multitasking enjoyable. Socializing, virtually or otherwise, is more pleasurable than the arduous processes involved in truly working or studying.
You can likely apply the same principles to plumbing, cooking, housework, woodworking, etc. The key to success, it seems is to FOCUS on one task at a time, FINISH the job, and then move one. You’ll save time, be more efficient, and do a better job! Remember – FOCUS & FINISH!
American Psychological Association. (March 20, 2006). Multitasking: Switching Costs.
BBC News (2005). ‘Infomania’ worse than marijuana. http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4471607.stm
Keim, B. (2009). Multitasking muddles Brains, even when the computer is off. Wired Science News for Your Neurons. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2009/08/multitasking/#ixzz11LfOUISp
Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. v. 106, no. 37. http://www.pnas.org/content/106/37/15583
Nass, C. (August 28, 2009). Talk of the Nation: National Public Radio: Multitasking May Not Mean Higher Productivity. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112334449
Seldon, B. (2009). Multitasking, marijuana, managing? http://www.management-issues.com/2009/9/21/opinion/multitasking–marijuana–managing.asp