Right now, I have 36 windows opened up on my computer. No, I’m not doing (or trying to do) 36 things at once. It’s just that’s what happens when you give a dumb human like me the tools to open up 36 or 72 or 172 windows at once.
It’s no wonder it’s so easy to lose track of where we are and what we’re doing.
Welcome to the wonderful world of multi-tasking. That modern marvel where companies and bosses expect us to perform miracles simply because the technology allows it. Nobody bothered checking with the human brain first to see if multitasking was even a good thing.
Well, until not recently.
Turns out that multitasking is generally not a good thing.
A whole generation (the “Net Gen”) is growing up supposedly learning and doing more by multitasking. But what’s really happening? If more time spent IMing means less ability to concentrate on tasks and activities that are needed for real life (you know, like learning in school, reading, boring stuff like that), they aren’t really doing more. They’re learning to do less, be less patient, and be less able to concentrate on a single task for more than a few minutes at a time (resulting in an inability to actually “go deep” or engage in critical thinking on any topic) (Levine et al., 2007).
For years, we’ve thought that laptops in school classrooms were a good learning tool. “We need to increase the school budget, every child should have access to a laptop in the classroom!” Sadly, again, no one thought to actually study the question before spending millions of dollars equipping schoolchildren with laptops. Since then, emerging research (for instance, Fried, 2008) suggests that laptops aren’t all they were cracked up to be:
Results showed that students who used laptops in class spent considerable time multitasking and that the laptop use posed a significant distraction to both users and fellow students. Most importantly, the level of laptop use was negatively related to several measures of student learning, including self-reported understanding of course material and overall course performance.
Researchers show that even when you do learn things through multi-tasking, you compromise the quality of that learning. Foerde et al. (2006) showed that while people can and do learn things while multitasking, the learning is less flexible and more specialized. What that means is that when you go to recall something you learned while multitasking, chances you won’t do so quite as easily or readily.
In addition, the more the task requires attention and concentration, such as learning a new subject, the more your learning will be negatively affected by multi-tasking.
But really, what’s the big deal with multitasking? After all, everyone does it and many employers not only expect it, but demand it.
The deal is simply that we are building roles and teaching our children how to learn less, in less time, with a result that while potentially similar to a result not done while multitasking, will be more difficult to recall and will likely be of lesser quality. You seemingly “get more done,” but at a cost to the quality of — not necessarily the work or studying — but the worker or student. For instance, Mark et al. (2008) found that while one’s work may be similar in quality while multitasking, the worker is stressed out, expends more effort and feels more frustrated by doing so.
So yeah, keep on multitasking, because that’s what expected in this modern world. But just don’t be surprised by the resulting problems associated with it. Meanwhile, I think I’ll close a few of these windows on my computer and stop checking my email every 2 minutes. Maybe that will help.
Foerde, K., Knowlton, B. J., & Poldrack, R. A. (2006). Modulation of competing memory
systems by distraction. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., 103, 11778-11783.
Fried, C.B. (2008). In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Computers & Education, 50(3), 906-914.
Levine, L.E., Waite, B.M., & Bowman, L.L. (2007). Electronic media use, reading, and academic distractibility in college youth. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 10(4), 560-566.
Mark, G., Gudith, D. & Klocke, U. (2008). The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress (PDF).