The Myth of Multitasking…

This commercial is excellent, even if the point of it is to sell you a device that will likely lead to exactly the type of behavior being parodied. The scene where the guy drops his cell phone in the urinal was perhaps my favorite part of the video, but that is because I used to see that guy every day in my former job. In my previous job I was a lab manager for a drug research lab at a large University. There was a post-doc in another lab who spent the majority of his waking hours talking on his cell phone (from what I could tell), even when using the bathroom on our floor. He would go about his business with his phone tucked between his ear and shoulder, chatting away regardless of what type of business he was there to conduct, if you catch my drift. Oh, how I longed to hear that phone go “splash”, but sadly I was never witness to such a glorious event.

Anyhow, such stories are all too common these days. How many of you have ever come close to being hit by a driver who was paying more attention to his or her phone than to actually driving? We text while walking, talking, biking and driving. We listen to music while talking on the phone and reading the news. We play games on our smartphones while spending “quality time” with our children or having “family dinner”. We spend class time checking Facebook, responding to texts, or checking email (if you are old enough that you still use email). The idea that we are a society of multitaskers is pervasive. We think nothing of managing multiple tasks at the same time, dividing our attention between activities that stand in stark contrast to one another, and we take pride in our supposed ability to do so. I say “supposed” because the truth of the matter is that human multitasking is a myth.

The activity that we like to refer to as “multitasking” is somewhat of a misnomer because what we are doing is not simultaneously engaging in multiple tasks. Instead, we are dividing our attention and engaging in behavior that is known as “task-switching“, which is exactly what it sounds like. We change our focus from one activity to another, attempting to monitor various sources of information and process our responses to it. You might say: “Fair enough…then I am really good at task-switching.” Unfortunately, that is not the case either. “No, seriously. I check Facebook all the time during class because class is totally boring, but I do just fine.” Now that I have returned to a classroom setting, I suspect there are a lot of students who probably think that is true. I would suggest, however, that if you are doing well in a class when you hardly pay attention, then it is more likely that you are doing well in spite of your actions, and certainly not because of them.

There have been countless studies over the years that examine how people interact with technology, and how these interactions affect our performance in a wide range of activities. This research has been fairly consistent in demonstrating that our ability to process information is limited, and insufficient for carrying out multiple tasks simultaneously or responding to multiple sources of stimuli. An article from 2012 entitled “No A 4 U: The relationship between multitasking and academic performance” found that regularly engaging in social activities such as Facebook and texting during class would have a negative impact on a student’s GPA. There are plenty of other articles that support this assertion, and in this case we are just talking about students using Facebook during class. Do you really think that you are any better at task-switching when it comes to talking on the phone while trying to cook dinner, texting your friend while driving, or playing Candy Crush Saga while spending quality time with your toddler? Think again.

One universal truth is that we all have the same number of hours in a day, and what we choose to do with those hours is up to us. With the rapid pace of technology, the increasing availability of information, and the frantic pace that many of us set for our daily lives, it is no wonder that we look for ways to get more “bang for our buck” out of every minute. Contrary to what you might think, however, multitasking is not the way to accomplish this goal. Attempting to juggle multiple activities at the same time is an almost certain way to ensure that you spend more time in total than you would if you had approached each task sequentially. Attempting to combine activities like texting and driving is an almost certain way to ensure that you eventually injure yourself or another…or worse. So think about what you are really trying to accomplish the next time that you decide to “kill two birds with one stone”, and ask yourself if you are really going to bring home two birds, or just throw some rocks around for a while.

I leave you with this brief, but amusing, talk about multitasking.

Category(s): Education, Science Stuff

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