Can You Really Multi-task?

OK, I know you can multi-task. The real question is should you?

Adam Gorlick recently wrote on this for the Stanford News, a blog. Here is what he writes:

“Attention, multitaskers (if you can pay attention, that is): Your brain may be in trouble.

People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time, a group of Stanford researchers has found.

High-tech jugglers are everywhere – keeping up several e-mail and instant message conversations at once, text messaging while watching television and jumping from one website to another while plowing through homework assignments.

But after putting about 100 students through a series of three tests, the researchers realized those heavy media multitaskers are paying a big mental price.

“They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” said communication Professor Clifford Nass, one of the researchers whose findings are published in the Aug. 24 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “Everything distracts them.”

Social scientists have long assumed that it’s impossible to process more than one string of information at a time. The brain just can’t do it. But many researchers have guessed that people who appear to multitask must have superb control over what they think about and what they pay attention to.”

The article goes on to discuss the discoveries from the study that Gorlick is discussing. It is very interesting stuff.

One distinction they may is between heavy multi-taskers, people doing a large number of things at the same time. These are separate things and most often involving electronic devices. They may be doing email, on line chat, and a video game at the same time. The compared these people to light multi-taskers who focus primarily on one thing but do other things on and off at the same time. In tests the heavy multi-taskers did not do as well as the light multi-taskers in solving problems and other challenges.

Life is full of multi-tasking and it is pretty much unavoidable. Driving a car is one big multi-tasking performance. To drive well one must observe and listen to a number of stimuli at one time and also do a number of things at one time from shifting to controlling speed to steering and often to working the radio as well. In light of the propensity some people have to do non-driving related activities such as eating, putting on makeup and texting while driving there are studies that these things make us less safe while driving. Humans just cannot effectively multi-task very much.

How much one can multi-task may depend on how alert one is, how difficult the tasks are, how much focus they require, etc. Most of us can eat a sandwich and watch TV at the same time because these do not require highly competing realms of focus.

The research does indicate that if we want to do things well, especially complex things, we need to focus on them and to avoid much multi-tasking. This seems particularly true of electronic devices.

The study also indicates that chronic heavy multi-taskers may be damaging their brain’s ability to focus. This reduces the ability to concentrate and therefore to do well those things that require concentration.

Multi-taskers often think they are doing multiple things well because they are not good at measuring their own performance. Tests show the more we do at one time the less well we do any of them.

Maybe it would be better for us and our brains to multi-task less and concentrate on doing one thing well more. What do you think?

Read the rest of Gorlick’s article here. And do not do anything else while you read it!

Wishing you well,

Daniel R. Murphy
Educating people for building wealth, adapting to a changing future and personal development.