Are You a Multi-tasker? Should You Be?



There is no doubt that we all engage in multi-tasking from time to time.  We drive and listen to the radio, we watch television and eat, and some of us even walk and chew gum simultaneously!  Mothers with children have always had to multi-task.  You can’t get your toddler ready for play school then sit him on a shelf while you go and get ready yourself, make lunch for the older kids, and think about the meeting you have first thing.


But the latest cohort of kids, sometimes referred to as the net generation, digital natives or Homo Zappiens have taken, with the help of technology, the concept of multi-tasking to a whole new level.  I became aware of how wedded kids were to technology the other day when my Niece instructed her 12-year-old daughter to put her iPad away when she was having a conversation with us.


Kids absolutely believe they can multi-task without any loss of information or understanding from any of the communication channels they are plugged into – electronic or human.  Of course, when I was in elementary school I thought the same thing – I wanted to listen to the radio when I studied.


So what do we know about multi-tasking and its effects?  Some serious research has been conducted since 2009 with a Stanford University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers.”  One of the co-authors of the study, Clifford Nass, has said that there are not many dissenters of the conclusion reached by this study.  “The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking.”


There is an excellent site – Journalists’ Resource, published out of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard which addresses this issue and gives a brief overview of some of the more recent research on multi-tasking.


Some of the more interesting findings are:


  • “Heavy media multitaskers are distracted by the multiple streams of media they are consuming, or, alternatively, that those who infrequently multitask are more effective at volitionally allocating their attention in the face of distractions.” In short, those who seldom multi-task are better able to focus on what they are doing even when there are distractions around.


  • There is a very small percentage (2.5% in one study) of people who are labelled Supertaskers. These folks did not record any decrease in skill when participating in a high-fidelity driving simulator in both single- and dual-task conditions. The dual task involved driving while performing a demanding auditory version of the operation span (OSPAN) task.  5% showed significant decrease in ability.


  • Another study looking at kids and their Facebook and other social media platforms found that participants in the study averaged less than six minutes on task prior to switching when they had devices open and ready to send or receive messages.


  • Another study examined the use of social media by students and found: “During coursework, students spent the most time using Facebook, searching for non-school-related information online, and emailing. While doing schoolwork outside of class, students reported spending an average of 60 minutes per day on Facebook, 43 minutes per day searching, and 22 minutes per day on email. Lastly, students reported sending an average of 71 texts per day while doing schoolwork.” The data suggest that “using Facebook and texting while doing schoolwork were negatively predictive of overall GPA.”


Adults, for the most part, do not attend school during the day, but we do have schoolwork referred to as meetings.  How many times have we been on our phones texting, sending or receiving emails, or observing others in the group doing the same?  And we wonder why we have to repeat information, that people claim they never heard, or that different people seem to hear different messages.


And just remember: “Many people feel they must multi-task because everybody else is multitasking, but this is partly because they are all interrupting each other so much.”    Marilyn vos Savant


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