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“The Truth About Multitasking”

Monday, January 18th, 2010

From my favorite magazine, The Week:

Modern humans have embraced multitasking with all four limbs. We text while walking, chat on the phone while driving, check e-mail while writing the annual report. Psychology textbooks suggest that our brains can’t successfully process so much at once. “But if you walk around on the street, you see lots of people multitasking,” Stanford researcher Eyal Ophir tells “So we asked ourselves, ‘What is it that these multitaskers are good at that enable them to do this?’

The surprising answer is nothing. Ophir and colleagues categorized subjects into two groups, high and low multitaskers, according to the amount of electronic information they typically consumed. Then they ran them through several experiments designed to test the skills that multi¬taskers ostensibly possess. To test their ability to ignore irrelevant information, for example, subjects were shown a screen with both red rectangles and blue rectangles; when subjects saw the screen a second time, they were asked whether any of the red rectangles had been rotated.

High multitaskers consistently scored much worse; they were less able to ignore distractions, had more fallible memories, and couldn’t switch to new tasks as readily. “The shocking discovery of this research” is that high multitaskers “are lousy at everything that’s necessary for multi¬tasking,” says co-author Clifford Nass. “They’re suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.” Left unclear is why chronic multitaskers fail. Are they naturally bad at focusing, so they multitask to compensate? Or does multitasking actively degrade their ability to concentrate? Either way, the lesson is the same: If you want to get more done, try doing less.

Aich! It’s what I’ve suspected all along.

Related Posts:
Entrain Your Brain
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5 Comments on ““The Truth About Multitasking””

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Carrie Schneider, Rebecca Zook. Rebecca Zook said: Posting about "The Truth About Multitasking" (less = more) on my learning blog […]

  • Sue VanHattum on January 18th 3:14 pm

    Interesting study. I’d seen it once before, but I hadn’t seen the fascinating studies your related post on sleep and learning pointed me to. I’ve just blogged about it at my blog”.


  • Rebecca Zook on January 18th 3:23 pm

    Sue! Oh my gosh! I’m so excited to see your comment that I actually jumped up and down. I’ve been reading and admiring your blog for months and I am absolutely thrilled to see you here. Thank you!!

  • John Kai on January 21st 2:57 am

    Any idea how one can break out and retrain themselves to not be a multi-tasker?

  • Rebecca Zook on January 21st 4:58 pm

    Thanks so much for stopping by! This question–how to retrain yourself to not multi-task–intrigues me as well. One thing that I’ve been working on is doing one thing at a time–seems obvious, but it does help. Also limiting computer usage. I’ll be posting about it more on my blog in the upcoming weeks! Let me know if you find any strategies that help you too!

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