The Coaching Educator

The Myth and Madness of Multitasking

Paul multitasking
(Photo by Dana Culp)

By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF

It’s inefficient for anybody of any age, and the people who think they excel at it are the very ones who are lousy at it.

Many years ago we knew a wise economist who expressed the Law of Unintended Consequences in terms that even the dullest undergraduate could understand:

“It is hard to do just one thing.”

We say the dullest undergraduate could understand. That’s if the dull undergraduate was, well, doing only one thing at the time: listening to the lecture. In making economic policy, doing only one thing is nearly impossible, but in the daily business of life, doing multiple things at once is what’s hard–if you intend to do any of them well.

And that’s not just true of old people.

Multitasking, which is supposed to help us get more stuff done, has its own unintended consequences: It impairs our performance, compromises the quality of our activities and their results, and in the long run keeps us from accomplishing as much as we would if we did one thing at a time. Apparently we’re not actually multitasking anyway, just performing multiple activities in rapid succession.

“The neuroscience is clear,” write Cynthia Kubu and Andre Machado of Cleveland Clinic in Time. “We are wired to be mono-taskers. One study found that just 2.5 percent of people are able to multitask effectively. And when the rest of us attempt to do two complex activities simultaneously, it is simply an illusion.”

Send in the clowns.

The activities need not even be complex to become difficult in combination, as Susan Weinschenk explains in Psychology Today:

“In a study by Hyman et. al. in 2009, people talking on their cell phones while walking ran into people more often and didn’t notice what was going on around them. The researchers had someone in a clown suit ride a unicycle. The people talking on a cell phone were much less likely to notice or remember the clown.”

We’ll revisit this study shortly.

Kubu and Machado warn that our technological capabilities divide our attention while perpetrating and perpetuating the myth that we are doing multiple things simultaneously and doing them well. The sad fact is that we’re messing up even the simplest tasks.

Neuroscience has concluded that attentiveness simply is not possible under some of the conditions we consider integral to our lives. “Dual tasking (doing a linguistic or auditory task during a driving simulation) is associated with reduced activity in regions of the brain important for attention, as well as poorer driving performance,” according to Kubu and Machado. In other words, carrying on a conversation while driving compromises your listening ability and powers of conversation as well as your reactions and anticipations behind the wheel. We hate to be the ones to tell you this, but if you like to listen to The Great Courses during your commute, you’re not living up to your potential as either a driver or a student. Ironically, commuters who enjoy The Great Courses as much as we do can now listen to “Scientific Secrets for a Powerful Memory” or “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Techniques for Retraining Your Brain” while they drive.

And speaking of your commute, a University of Utah study concluded that people who talk on the phone while driving don’t even reach their destinations as quickly as those who abstain. The researchers also discovered that the most inefficient people regarded themselves as superior and that the people with the best multitasking skills were the ones least likely to multitask:

The findings indicate that the persons who are most capable of multitasking effectively are not the persons who are most likely to engage in multiple tasks simultaneously. To the contrary, multi-tasking activity as measured by the Media Multitasking Inventory and self-reported cell phone usage while driving were negatively correlated with actual multi-tasking ability. Multi-tasking was positively correlated with participants’ perceived ability to multi-task, which was found to be significantly inflated.

That’s right: Chronic multitaskers have an unfounded high opinion of their performance. The study also found that they are more likely to be individuals who score high on impulsivity and low on qualities related to goal-setting.

Alzheimer’s for collegians?

It should tell us something about multitasking that even the former chief information officer for Google discourages it. “Your brain just can’t take in and process two simultaneous, separate streams of information and encode them fully into short-term memory,” writes Douglas Merrill. “When information doesn’t make it into short-term memory, it can’t be transferred into long-term memory for recall later. If you can’t recall it, you can’t use it.  And, presumably, you are trying to learn something from whatever you are doing, right?”

Or pass the test, anyway.

“Empirical research has demonstrated that multitasking with technology (such as texting, listening to music, checking emails) negatively impacts studying, doing homework, learning, and grades,” say Kubu and Machado.

Note that homework, learning, and grades are spheres associated with the young, who despite their reputation for technological superiority are no better at multitasking than their elders are. They may in fact be worse. Where multitasking becomes a habit early in life–as it has with the digital-native generation–so does impaired learning. A study by Clifford Nass at Stanford University concluded that “when people are asked to deal with multiple streams of information, they can’t pay attention to them, can’t remember as well, and don’t switch as well as they thought they would – even college students.”

Remember the experiment involving a clown and a unicycle? That was on a college campus, and 75 percent of the students chatting on the phone while walking failed to notice the clown. In another study, 20 percent of teenagers admitted to ER after being struck by vehicles also admitted that they had been using smartphones at the time.

Russell Poldrack, formerly of UCLA and now professor of psychology at Stanford, has conducted research that ought to make college students thing twice–or, better yet, think just once but with full attention–about multitasking in class or while studying:

“Multi-tasking adversely affects how you learn,” Poldrack says. “Even if you learn while multitasking, that learning is less flexible…so you cannot retrieve the information as easily…The best thing you can do to improve your memory is to pay attention to the things you want to remember.”

Recollection of facts and concepts is the business of “declarative memory,” and Poldrack’s research among people in their twenties indicates that declarative memory is significantly disrupted by distractions. So multitasking interferes with declarative memory–just like Alzheimer’s.

Read the latest about dieting and get fat.

The now-familiar refrain, “I don’t know why I’m always behind, because I’m always multitasking” among inveterate multitaskers is reminiscent of “I don’t know why I gain weight, when I don’t eat anything but salads” among people who load up their salads with Roquefort dressing, bacon bits, and shredded cheddar. And actually it turns out that multitasking can make you fat: Being distracted while eating can keep your brain from processing the fact that you’ve eaten, which leads to diminished satisfaction and the desire to keep eating.

Furthermore, multitaskers have trouble even shopping for healthy foods. According to research published in the Journal of Retailing, people assigned to shop for three snacks with a total of 500 calories were more likely to overshoot the limit if they were on the phone at the time.

It’s a drug! It damages the part of your mind that helps you quit!

Multitasking also atrophies our ability to discern between relevant and irrelevant information, which could lead to information overload coupled with the inability to decide which information actually matters, which helps perpetuate multitasking. Priority-setting becomes a problem with multitaskers, and that problem is exacerbated by the normal human proclivity for procrastination. Multiple items demanding attention can give the multitasker an excuse to avoid addressing the more onerous ones, which frequently are the ones that ultimately matter most.

The ability to set priorities is, well, the first priority in reducing multitasking and reestablishing order. As Psychology Todays Weinschenk says:

I think one of the reasons that we give in to multi-tasking is that we feel more and more anxious as the day goes on that we have not accomplished what we wanted to, or what was important to us. So identify at the start of each day (or better yet, at the end of the day before) one or two really important things that you want to accomplish during that one day. Then do those tasks first. The sense of relief and accomplishment is immense, and you will find that you are more relaxed as the day goes on. You will not feel the anxious drive to do more and more and more, and it will be easier to resist multitasking.

She also points out that “20 percent of the work you do gives 80 percent of the impact and effectiveness…Focus on identifying the 20 percent of your tasks that are really effective, and do them one at a time.”

“Batch-processing” of tasks is another helpful strategy: Certain activities that can be distracting, such as email, telephone calls, or checking voicemail, should each have a particular time slot rather than being allowed to infringe or impinge upon other tasks.

Ultimately, it all comes down to one principle:

Do one thing at a time.

Kubu and Machado note that many surgeons love the environment of the operating room itself, despite the high-stakes nature of their work, because of the single-mindedness, the absolute attentiveness, required by the job. In a similar vein, professional racing drivers, who could be killed or maimed at any time by human error or mechanical failure, often experience their time in the car as a form of refuge from the commercial pressures of the sport. Journalist and aikido aficionado George Leonard, in his 1991 book Mastery: The Keys to Long-term Success and Fulfillment, recalls being a small boy and watching his father, an insurance executive, get into “the zone” at his desk in an otherwise empty office on Saturday mornings:

I  would  play with  the machines  and make paper  airplanes for a while  but then, more likely than not,  I would go into my father’s office and just  sit there watching him, fascinated by the depth of his  concentration. He was in a world of his own, entirely relaxed  and at the same time entirely focused as he opened the envelopes  of various sizes and shapes, sorted the contents into piles, and made notes to his secretary.  And all the time he worked, his lips were slightly parted, his breath steady and calm, his eyes soft,  and his hands moving steadily, almost hypnotically. I remember wondering even then, when I was not more than  ten years old, if I would ever have such a power of concentration or take such pleasure in  my work.

Leonard was writing, in the pre-internet era, about something he witnessed in the 1930s, but the image may be helpful to us in an effort to draw some boundaries for ourselves. Imagine being in such a mental state when studying for an exam or writing a paper. We expect acute concentration from athletes and other performers, but we tend not to demand it of ourselves in other endeavors, and that’s unfortunate.

Yogi Berra (yes, this is our second consecutive post with a Yogi reference) didn’t have much formal education–The Coaching Educator wasn’t around when Yogi was a teenager–but he was an astute man, his malapropisms notwithstanding, and he understood the perils of multitasking. Yogi was known as a congenial fellow behind the plate, keeping up a line of neighborly conversation with opposing players as they stood in the batter’s box. He knew that even the light burden of pleasant talk was harmful to their concentration on the task at hand. Berra famously advised Hank Aaron to hold his bat so he could read the trademark, feigning concern that Aaron would break the bat by making contact in the wrong spot. “I didn’t come up here to read,” Aaron replied. Another astute man.

We at The Coaching Educator would like to think that we are astute about all things collegiate. We are especially proud of everything we’ve done over the last decade to help students get into and succeed at the right college. We can help keep you on schedule and on task throughout the process, and we recommend that you start as early as possible. To learn more about what we can do for you, book a free consultation today.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter, he has taught academic writing and research methods at the university level and an assortment of humanities courses at the secondary level. He has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer. When not involved with The Coaching Educator, he stays busy plying his trade as founder and president of Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS).

References

Atalay, A. Selin, H. Onur Bodur, and Etienne Bressoud, “When and How Multitasking Impacts Consumer Shopping Decisions,” Journal of Retailing, June 2017, pp. 187-200, https://www.sciencedirect.com/ science/article/abs/pii/S0022435916300380

Kubu, Cynthia, and Andre Machado. “Why Multitasking Is Bad for You,” Time, 20 April 2017, http://time.com/4737286/multitasking-mental-health-stress-texting-depression/

Leonard, George. Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-term Fulfillment. New York: Penguin, 1991, p. 46.

MacMillan, Amanda. “12 Reasons to Stop Multitasking Now!” Explore Health, https://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20707868,00.html?slide=71307#71307. Accessed 17 November 2018.

Merrill, Douglas. “Why Multitasking Doesn’t Work,” Forbes, 17 August 2012, https://www.forbes.com/ sites/douglasmerrill/2012/08/17/why-multitasking-doesnt-work/#925662f6ada6

Sanbonmatsu, David M., David L. Strayer, Nathan Madeiros-Ward, and Jason M. Watson, “Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking,” PLOS One, 1 January 2013, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/ journal.pone.0054402

University of California–Los Angeles. “Multi-tasking Adversely Affects Brain’s Learning, UCLA Psychologists Report.” ScienceDaily, 26 July 2006. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/ 2006/07/060726083302.htm>

Weinschenk, Susan. “The True Cost of Multitasking,” Psychology Today, 18 September 2012, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-wise/201209/the-true-cost-multi-tasking

 

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