Multi-tasking: the bane of modern existence! I have long thought successfully juggling multiple tasks simultaneously was a myth; thankfully, science disproving that myth is gaining traction. There have been reports trickling out for years debunking the effectiveness of trying to do too many things at once. My teen-aged son could probably tell you how exactly many reports on the radio and in the newspaper there have been, because I think I pointed out every one to him! I even blogged about how multi-tasking is eroding our powers of concentration, taking us farther and farther away from the Sherlockian ideal of laser-like focus that can solve impossible puzzles.
Of course, we have always been able to do some multi-tasking: ask any parent. Making dinner while supervising toddlers banging on pots and pans or pre-teens doing homework are examples that leap to mind. But there is a relatively new type of multi-tasking that involves concentrating on accomplishing a specific tasks within a specific time frame, accompanied by interruptions from one or more electronic devices. This is not only dangerous (texting while driving, anyone?) but congnitively disruptive.
Yesterday I was laughing out loud as I listened to NPR's Science Friday story on The Myth of Multitasking while making sweet and spicy walnuts. Yes, I multi-task this way, but only if the recipe is simple enough to not demand my undivided concentration. (Before the advent of podcasts and online transcripts, however, I did have a few kitchen mishaps while absorbed in radio stories!)
Dr. Clifford Naas, Professor of Communications at Stanford, and author of The Man Who Lied to His Laptop was being interviewed by host Ira Flatow. Dr. Nass basically said that those who claim to be good at multi-tasking are fooling themselves: "It's a little like smoking, you know, saying, I smoke all the time, so smoking can't be bad for me."
He said that we know the brain is remarkably elastic, and that it actually changes as we become more accustomed to this rapid switching between tasks (which is what multi-tasking really is). His research had led him to this conclusion: "People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They
can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted."
As a mom, a teacher, a coach, and a communications consultant, I can vouch for the truth of this statement. People who habitually multi-task take much longer to learn something new and to internalize it to the point where they can really use it. It takes longer for things to stick.
It will be interesting to see how generations of digital natives will deal with this concentration deficit. Many folks are enthralled with their devices to the point of addiction, according to Dr. Nass. This is not good: "We, so far, have not found people who are successful at multitasking.
There are some evidence that there's a very, very, very, very small
group of people who can do two tasks at one time but there's actually no
evidence that anyone can do even three."
So, if you have been telling your children, colleagues, friends, to put down that smart phone so they can pay attention, only to be greeted with "I can do two things at once," you were right. Here's the proof. You're welcome