The More You Multitask, the Worse You Get at It

From an article I’ve been reading on leadership and solitude:

That’s the first half of the lecture: the idea that true leadership means being able to think for yourself and act on your convictions. But how do you learn to do that? How do you learn to think? Let’s start with how you don’t learn to think. A study by a team of researchers at Stanford came out a couple of months ago. The investigators wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked? The answer, they discovered—and this is by no means what they expected—is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there. In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: the more people multitask, the worse they are, not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself.

One thing that made the study different from others is that the researchers didn’t test people’s cognitive functions while they were multitasking. They separated the subject group into high multitaskers and low multitaskers and used a different set of tests to measure the kinds of cognitive abilities involved in multitasking. They found that in every case the high multitaskers scored worse. They were worse at distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant information and ignoring the latter. In other words, they were more distractible. They were worse at what you might call “mental filing”: keeping information in the right conceptual boxes and being able to retrieve it quickly. In other words, their minds were more disorganized. And they were even worse at the very thing that defines multitasking itself: switching between tasks.

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

  • JC

    Am persuaded that multitasking is not as efficient as single-tasking. So now try to do one thing at a time.

    But I wonder about those employers that advertise their need of someone who is good at multitasking… Do they not know that someone could be much better if they don’t multitask? Imagine an applicant’s cover letter.
    “Dear Potential Employer,
    I’ve got the sought-after qualifications A, B, and C, but though I can multitask, I am much better in single-tasking.

    I. Wont-get Dajob

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  • Christy Schutz

    Good post. Kinda disconcerting to read that more multitasking basically makes you worse at multitasking — and ultimately thinking. No wonder so many recent articles talk of how multitasking, and this twitter, FB, smartphone, instant/constant information overload is actually “dumbing us down.”

    Just wrote a similar post on this subject on my blog:

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  • CRB

    Multitasking is a form of tyranny. It’s source is the greed of employers, who are too damn cheep to hire enough help to spread the work around. All of these corporations want a wonder-woman or a superman who can do two or three other people’s jobs at half the pay.

    I have always known that “multitasking” is unhealthy. Some employers are taking that to the next level in what is being called “Optimizing” –that’s the hell of multitasking taken to a whole new dimension.

    Too much stress for too little g*d d*m $$$.

  • Paul Howard

    When we use hypnotherapy with clients the whole idea is to stop them focusing on anything else. It’s like drawing curtains over the outside world. This allows us to suggest simple ideas to the subconscious mind with interference from external distraction. Your article kind of explains whats going on.

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