Multitasking Fail

by Michael W. Taft

You’re working on a paper, and the kids need dinner. Music is playing in one room, and the tv is on in the other. You don’t want to miss tonight’s episode of Futurama, so you peek at that while you type in your notes, getting up every once in a while to stir the pasta. Maybe you’re checking your email, keeping an eye on your Facebook and Twitter feeds, and playing some Candy Crush in there, too. No problem. Hey, you’re a modern person, able to scoff at the narrow insistence on single-minded attention that kept our ancestors hidebound. And you think you’re pretty good at keeping all these balls in the air at once.

The fact is, however, that you’re not. You actually suck at multitasking, and you just don’t know it. Stanford Professors Clifford Nass and Anthony Wagner ran a study in 2009 which intended to show just how people who are good at multitasking (high multitaskers) were different from people who focus on one thing at a time (low multitasking). The core of successful multitasking, according to Nass, is to be able to focus on what is important and ignore what is irrelevant. The results of were a surprise:

We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They’re terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.

…We’re troubled, because if you think about it, if on the one hand multitasking is growing not only across time, but in younger and younger kids we’re observing high levels of multitasking, if that is causing them to be worse at these fundamental abilities — I mean, think about it: Ignoring irrelevancy — that seems pretty darn important. Keeping your memory in your head nicely and neatly organized — that’s got to be good. And being able to go from one thing to another? Boy, if you’re bad at all of those, life looks pretty difficult.

And in fact, we’re starting to see some higher-level effects [of multitasking]. For example, recent work we’ve done suggests we’re worse at analytic reasoning, which of course is extremely valuable for school, for life, etc. So we’re very troubled about, on the one hand, the growth, and on the other hand, the essential incompetence or failure. …

One would think that if people were bad at multitasking, they would stop. However, when we talk with the multitaskers, they seem to think they’re great at it and seem totally unfazed and totally able to do more and more and more. We worry about it, because as people become more and more multitaskers, as more and more people — not just young kids, which we’re seeing a great deal of, but even in the workplace, people being forced to multitask, we worry that it may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly.

So not only were the high multitaskers bad at multitasking, they were also convinced that they were good at it. And their ability to perform basic cognitive functions, such as paying attention, keeping memory organized, and analytical reasoning, was bad.

Imagine twenty years from now, you are on trial for a murder you didn’t commit. (Or maybe you were texting while driving.) As you sit before a jury of your peers, you can’t help but notice that most of them are streaming Netflix movies on their smartphones. The judge misses one of your lawyer’s objections because she’s texting her lover, but your lawyer doesn’t care because he’s the one she’s texting. Your only hope is that the police at the door are watching porn videos on their smartwatches and won’t notice when you sneak out.

Working Memory Is Limited

The multitasking future is a joke. The ability to concentrate attention on one task at a time is essential to high-level human cognition. Concentrated attention is also one of several core skills that meditation trains (the others are equanimity and sensory clarity). Each time you bring your wandering attention back to the task at hand, you are building your attention power. And each time you let yourself get distracted by a flood of irrelevancies you are building what I call your distractability.

There is only so much RAM in your brain, a capacity that is called working memory. When all of your attention is focused on a single task, then most or all of working memory is absorbed in that task. You can bring all your available neurons to the table, so to speak. When you are distracted, however, there is less attention available for the job at hand. You are bringing far fewer neurons to the table. The net effect is that you have dumbed yourself down: actually lost IQ points in the sense of intelligence available for work. As Nass says in an interview:

Now, if they’re born multitaskers, we can say to them, “You know, you shouldn’t multitask because you’re going to be bad at it.” But if they’re made multitaskers, and we’re in a world where multitasking is being pushed on more and more people, we could be essentially undermining the thinking ability of our society. …

And frankly, we’re seeing this across the world, from the least developed countries to the most developed countries. Multitasking is one of the most dominant trends in the use of media, so we could be essentially dumbing down the world.

That’s a terrifying thought.

It’s very scary. And it’s one of the reasons we’re so excited about this research and why so many other people are getting excited.

People never bothered to look at what we call chronic multitaskers. What they would do is they’d make people do five things at once and say: “Ha ha! They’re not as good as if they do one thing at a time.” Not a big shock, I think. What we decided to do is ask the question, what’s happening if you’re doing this all the time, even when you’re not multitasking? So if we take a multitasker and say, “Now just focus on this,” can they? As a professor and as a teacher, we think a lot about how do you teach kids who can’t pay attention or are distracted by irrelevancy or don’t keep their memory neatly organized? It’s a scary, scary thought.

And, in fact, you already hear professors and others talking about changes in the way kids write, so that instead of writing an essay, they write in paragraphs, because what happens is, they write a paragraph, and they say, “Oh, now I’ll look at Facebook for a while.” Or they write a paragraph and say, “Oh, chance to play poker,” or whatever other activity they want, or to do all of these at once.

So what we’re seeing is less of a notion of a big idea carried through and much more little bursts and snippets. And we see that across media, across film, across, in Web sites, this idea of just do a little bit and then you can run away.

We were at MIT, and we were interviewing students and professors. And the professors, by and large, were complaining that their students were losing focus because they were on their laptops during class, and the kids just all insisted that they were really able to manage all that media and still pay attention to what was important in class — pick and choose, as they put it. Does that sound familiar to you?

It’s extremely familiar. … And the truth is, virtually all multitaskers think they are brilliant at multitasking. And one of the big new items here, and one of the big discoveries is, you know what? You’re really lousy at it. And even though I’m at the university and tell my students this, they say: “Oh, yeah, yeah. But not me! I can handle it. I can manage all these,” which is, of course, a normal human impulse. So it’s actually very scary. …

So who are these kids that you picked [for your study] to come in here today?

We picked the kids at Stanford who are multitasking a whole lot. So on a college campus, most kids are doing two things at once, maybe three things at once. These are kids who are doing five, six or more things at once, all the time.

So they’re the kids who are texting while talking with people, while working on their papers, while chatting on multiple sessions. They’re the kids who are playing multiple games on their screen while they’re doing Facebook, while they’re talking, while they’re doing all these other things. So these are the extreme kids, the kids who are at the very, very high end of that. …

And do these kids think they’re pretty good at it?

Yeah. They all seem to think they’re really good at it. In fact, what’s ironic is when we talk with people who multitask all the time, those who don’t — even though our research suggests the ones who don’t would actually be better at it — they’re the ones who are sure they’re really bad at it. And the ones who do it all the time and are sure they are great at it are really bad at it. So it’s a real question: What’s going on?

I know with myself that I’ve started multitasking much, much more. And it’s not that I necessarily think that I’m good at it, but … my sense is that I can function in a world in which I have to multitask. But I recently had myself analyzed by an interruption scientist. … She watched me for a whole day, and she said that at the end of the day, I hadn’t spent more than three minutes on a single task, and that really chilled me.

It should be chilling. Our brains aren’t really built for that. We evolved in a world in which there [were] very few things to look at at one time, or, more precisely, very few things that weren’t related. So if you were out hunting an animal, yeah, you might look at a lot of things, but they were all about hunting that animal. Now what we see is people trying to use information in a totally unrelated way. And that’s not how your brain, or anyone’s brain, is built.

So what gets lost?

Some things that we know get lost are, first of all, anytime you switch from one task to another, there’s something called the “task switch cost,” which basically, imagine, is I’ve got to turn off this part of the brain and turn on this part of the brain. And it’s not free; it takes time. So one thing that you lose is time.

A second thing you lose is when you’re looking at unrelated things, our brains are built to relate things, so we have to work very, very hard when we go from one thing to another, going: “No, not the same! Not the same! Stop it! Stop it!” It’s why people who aren’t multitaskers, like me, often experience when we’re typing and someone walks up and starts talking with you — you’ve probably had this — you start typing their words and go, “Ah, what happened?” And that’s because your brain loves to mix. So we’re spending a lot of time trying to beat down this combining brain we have. …

At the end of the day, it seems like it’s affecting things like ability to remember long term, ability to handle analytic reasoning, ability to switch properly, etc., if this stuff is, again, … trained rather than inborn. If it’s inborn, what we’re losing is the ability to do a lot of things that we’re doing. We’re doing things much, much poorer and less efficiently in time. So it’s actually costing us time.

One of the biggest delusions we hear from students is, “I do five things at once because I don’t have time to do them one at a time.” And that turns out to be false. That is to say, they would actually be quicker if they did one thing, then the next thing, then the next. It may not be as fun, but they’d be more efficient.

You’re confident of that?

Yes. There’s lots and lots of evidence. And that’s just not our work. The demonstration that when you ask people to do two things at once they’re less efficient has been demonstrated over and over and over. No one talks about it — I don’t know why — but in fact there’s no contradictory evidence to this for about the last 15, 20 years. Everything [as] simple as the little feed at the bottom of a news show, the little text, studies have shown that that distracts people. They remember both less. Studies on asking people to read something and at the same time listen to something show those effects. So there’s really, in some sense, no surprise there. There’s denial, but there’s no surprise.

The surprise here is that what happens when you chronically multitask, you’re multitasking all the time, and then you don’t multitask, what we’re finding is people are not turning off the multitasking switch in their [brain] — we think there’s a switch in the brain; we don’t know for sure — that says: “Stop using the things I do with multitasking. Focus. Be organized. Don’t switch. Don’t waste energy switching.” And that doesn’t seem to be turned off in people who multitask all the time.

So are you suggesting that by multitasking all the time, we are actually changing our brains and making our brains worse at focusing on one thing?

There’s a good chance. We don’t know for sure, because it also could be that people are born to multitask. That is, they’re born with the desire to do all these things, and that’s making them worse. But there is reason to worry at least, and believe that.

One of the other worries is, we’re seeing multitasking younger and younger and younger. So in a lovely study, someone showed that when infants were breastfeeding and the television was on, infants were doing a lot of television watching. Now, if we think about it, the way that we think that breastfeeding evolved the way it did is the distance from the mother’s face to the infant is the perfect focal distance. The voice is one that’s very attractive.

Well, if you think about it, what is television filled with? Faces and voices. What do babies love? Faces and voices. So now, at a time when we believe that children learn intense concentration, they’re being drawn away. Then as they get older, as they get to 3 or 4, we started feeling guilty that we put kids in front of the TV as a baby-sitter. So what did we do? We didn’t turn off the TV. We started giving them toys, books, etc., while they’re watching TV. So what are we telling them? We’re telling them, “Don’t pay attention; do many things at once.” Well, it may not then be surprising that years later, that’s how they view the media world.

Multitasking is Multi-failing

Multitasking actually trains you to be less attentive, which means you will be effectively less intelligent. Each decision you make will have the benefit of less and less brainpower to inform it.

By reducing distractions in your environment, on the other hand, you will slowly train yourself to concentrate your attention—deeply and fully—on one thing at a time. Focused attention is a learnable skill, and one that can grow much stronger than most people realize. With strong concentration power, effective intelligence grows, because the raw number of neurons you can use on a project is larger. And there is no better way to build concentration than by the practice of meditation.

So in daily life, try as much as possible to limit distractions. Turn off every input that you can turn off. Allow your attention to rest on one task at a time. Not only will you do a much better job, you will also feel less anxious.

Remember: Multitasking is multi-failing.


Read the Concentration Series



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