Be here now. Multitasking and performance.

by Stephanie Chasteen on November 27, 2011

I know I’m not.  A good multitasker, that is.  I know I do my best work when I’m singlemindedly focused on a certain thing.  But if I don’t turn off my email when I’m working, I switch over to look at it.  I fiddle with the stereo while driving and realize that I don’t remember the last stretch of road.  I have my twitter stream open during a conference, and realize that I only absorbed the very lightest layer of what the speaker was actually saying, while I was busy reading the twitter stream of what people were talking about what he was saying.  And I just can’t listen to music with words (at least english words) while reading or doing some other task that uses my verbal centers.

But there are people out there who claim to be great at multitasking.  Are there people who have trained their brains to be better at this sort of thing?  Turns out that a study came out of Stanford a few years back (Media Multitaskers Pay Mental Price) suggesting that no, they don’t.  They asked students if they were heavy multitaskers, and found out that those students were just really highly distractible:

“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.”

When given a task of sorting red rectangles, they were much more distracted by irrelevant blue triangles than non-multitaskers.   Do they have better memories?  It doesn’t seem so, they weren’t any better at remembering when alphabetical letters were shown to them more than once — in fact, they did worse as the study went on:

“The low multitaskers did great,” Ophir said. “The high multitaskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along because they kept seeing more letters and had difficulty keeping them sorted in their brains.”

And they also weren’t any better at switching between tasks than low multitaskers.  Because, surprise, they couldn’t focus on the task they were doing.

“They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” Ophir said. “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.”

Dear lord, that sounds like me.  I know I don’t filter as well as I used to now that I’m trying to juggle email during meetings, or update my calendar while I’m working on a paper.  Things come up in my mind and I can’t filter it out, I attend to it right then.

Here’s a YouTube video about the study.  (Which, by the way, is a really nice science communication tool, I like it!)

However, of course, that’s only one study.  A member of our research group (Noah Podolefsky) pointed out another study (Morgan et al, paper is here) who actually tested people for multitasking ability (instead of asking about multitasking), and found that people with high working memory and high aptitude at a task were better multitaskers — but that adaptability in a task is unrelated to multitasking ability.  At least, that’s what I think it’s suggesting, it’s a tough little nut of a study.

Regardless — using your phone or email (or twitter) during a class or meeting probably isn’t the best. Be here now. The zen approach to education and professional learning.

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