If you think you are good at multitasking, think again

Dennis SparksHere of two modest examples of a serious and growing problem, one that in one way or another most of experience on a daily basis: People who think they can successfully do two things at once.

Example 1: A few weeks ago I attended a meeting at which a woman placed her purse on the table in front of her and proceeded to periodically glance down and move her arms and hands in a way that suggested she was typing on a smartphone in her bag. I can only assume she thought it more courteous to “hide” what she was doing than to display her phone on the table. A variation on this theme are individuals who place their smart phones on their laps with their faces often illuminated by the glow of the screen.

Example 2: I recently was in a conversation with someone who took out their cell phone to check her messages while I was speaking. I said, “I’ll wait until you are done with that.” She responded, “Go ahead, I’m listening,” while she shifted her attention back and forth between me and the screen. I waited.

The problem: Multi-tasking affects the quality of relationships and work. It takes its toll on our short and long-term cognitive abilities. It affects the learning and performance of both young people and adults. And it can even cost us or others their lives if we do it while driving a car or walking down a busy street.

Just in case you think you are a skillful at multitasking there is a growing body of evidence, Nancy Shute reports in a NPR health blog, that the more proficient you think you are at it, the more likely you are not. And, in addition, rather than being an predictor of greater productivity, it may indicate an individual’s inability to pay attention to what’s important to him or her.

“[S]cientists say that the better people think they are at multitasking, the worse they really are at juggling,” Shute says. “Researchers at the University of Utah wanted to find out which personalities were more likely to try to do two tasks at once. They’re keenly interested in people who talk on the phone or text while driving, since there’s plenty of data that even using a hands-free phone boosts the risks of accidents. That bit isn’t exactly breaking news. For quite a few years, researchers have been making the case that people who drive while using phones drive as badly as people who are legally drunk. But we persist in thinking we can handle it.

In a blog post Reynol Junco concludes: “[Evidence from psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience suggests that when students multitask while doing schoolwork, their learning is far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention. They understand and remember less, and they have greater difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts.”

“There’s a lot of debate among brain researchers about the impact of gadgets on our brains,” Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thomson write in the New York Times. “Most discussion has focused on the deleterious effect of multitasking. Early results show what most of us know implicitly: if you do two things at once, both efforts suffer.

“In fact, multitasking is a misnomer. In most situations, the person juggling e-mail, text messaging, Facebook and a meeting is really doing something called ‘rapid toggling between tasks,’ and is engaged in constant context switching,

To sum up:

  • If you think you are good at multitasking, you probably aren’t, at least not with complex tasks.
  • Multitasking has a negative effect on learning, memory, and the transfer of learning to new contexts.
  • Multitasking affects our ability to successfully engage in more demanding cognitive tasks, both while we are multitasking and with future tasks.
  • Because multitasking affects our present moment awareness, it negatively affects the quality of our relationships and our work.

Given the prevalence of multitasking, it’s possible that some readers will disagree with this assessment… What are you thoughts on what I’ve described as a “serious and growing problem.”

6 Responses to “If you think you are good at multitasking, think again”


  1. 1 Jane Kise (@JaneKise) September 19, 2013 at 6:56 am

    Tony Schwartz at http://www.theenergyproject.com insists on working with top execs at companies first, getting them to only check email and messages at regular intervals, to try power napping, to improve diet, etc. so they can speak firsthand about their own productivity gains!

  2. 3 Melissa September 19, 2013 at 8:07 am

    It is irritating when you are sitting in a room with your administration and we are discussing the topics at hand and one of the administrators is texting on their phone. I look around and nearly everyone had a phone on the table or on their lap. I have had to learn to leave mine in my purse locked up. I know it is a powerful tool to have when needed, but call me old fashion, I still like the face to face time.

    • 4 Dennis Sparks September 19, 2013 at 8:14 am

      In my experience meetings are far more effective when participants turn off or remove from sight their digital tools. Some groups have explicit agreements about turning off phones, tablets, and computers.

  3. 5 Jody Westbrook Bergman September 19, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    Here’s what my pastor said about multi-tasking: Honk if you love Jesus; text while driving if you’d like to meet Him.


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