Pay Attention! (aka: Multitasking is Way Overrated)

PrintOkay. Judging by current statistics, I will only be able to keep your attention for around 8 seconds. (Or 5 minutes, depending on which link you click). Either way, current research indicates a decrease in the average adult attention span. The latest scapegoat? The Internet.

If there’s one thing humans love to do, it’s rewire our brains. And in fact, it appears that our constant web surfing has managed to do just that. It’s funny, isn’t it? We all love to boast about how we are such skilled Multitaskers. We can do half a dozen things at once! We can text a friend on our cell phones while simultaneously playing a game on our iPads, watching a streaming episode of Gray’s Anatomy on the television, and listening to our kids talk about school, all while paying attention to dinner cooking in the kitchen. We are Superhumans.

Or are we?

The sad truth is this – multi-tasking does not mean that we are performing those tasks better. In fact, the reverse is true. In the article Why the Modern World is Bad for Your Brain, neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin explains why we have the concept of multi-tasking all wrong. He quotes Earl Miller, an MIT neuroscientist and expert on divided attention, who says that human brains are: “not wired to multitask well… When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”

In other words, multitasking makes us stupider.   multitasking myth

Here’s the thing: the very word multitasking was coined by the IT industry. It was meant to describe the way computer processors can switch very rapidly from one task to a next. Human brains, however, were simply not designed to do so. At least, not without a cost. In his article, You Say Multitasking Like It’s a Good Thing, computer engineering professor Charles J. Abaté explains, “As with a microprocessor, the interruption of one task requires us to remember where we stopped, so that when we return to this task we can resume the activity. The same is true, of course, for the alternate task(s). Now, whereas microprocessors are quite efficient at storing and retrieving these interruption points, brains are decidedly not.”

The bottom line here is that there is very little benefit to multitasking. While we may think that attempting to manage several tasks at once is making us more productive, the research indicates that what we are actually doing is juggling three separate tasks and executing them poorly. Want to become a more effective learner? Turn off the television. Want to perform better at your job? Stop checking your email every few minutes. Having trouble paying attention? Turn off your cell phone.

Too Many Distractions

Just as we are capable of rewiring our brains for the worse, we are also capable of rewiring our brains for the better. By living in the moment and focusing our attention on the single task at hand, we can rise to our potential.

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6 responses to “Pay Attention! (aka: Multitasking is Way Overrated)

  1. my first computer was an Exidy Sorcerer that used to use a Bell 103A modem that ran at 110 bits/sec (Baud). It was like reading a sexy paperback because I kept suffering hoping that the good part would come soon. The sound of two modems handshaking is burned into my my mind. My computer ran dos in B/W (or green). It did only one thing at a time ( knew the good part was on the way. Then operating systems began to timeshare and operating systems would allot a small time slice to different programs, which made it seem to time share, but the whole thing suffered under load. This computer I am using has five processors on one chip and it does a lot of fancy footwork that makes it seem to parallel process.
    I am a sort of speed reader and read more ore less quickly, but my mind isn’t as fast as it could be and I can only time-slice. In the bathroom I have a book on Spinoza, which is dense reading, Above my desk I have “The Diary of Anais Nin” with whom I pretend to be a contemporary of hers had I been born in an earlier year, and ,Beside it I have a copy of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” which I read when I need to be reassured that mental instability need not be a crippling attribute.
    I do timeshare my activities on line with NPR, which only works because I like to listen the radio as I fall asleep and often hear the same program twice. Earlier in my working life I used to like to claim that I multitasked; not to multitask at that time was like not being able to walk and chew gum simultaneously. I do react to real-time interrupts, like when I pick up a hot pot but another story. I have learned to love any perceived deficits I may have in relationship to my betters. Worrying about multitasking would just cause me to have an unseemly tic around my left eye.

    • Good grief that’s a slow modem! 😀 I have never even heard of an Exidy Sorcerer, though I do remember that old modem handshaking sound. I like the way you used the term “timeshare,” which is probably the same thing as multitasking, although it brings to mind a longer time span between switching activities.

      I have a hard time not multitasking. I have trained my brain too well to switch attention rapidly between activities. I read while listening to music, cook meals while talking with my kids, and watch television while doing handicrafts. Right now, I am full-speed multitasking by responding to your comment during work, in between two other work-related tasks (probably not ideal). It is a strange culture we live in, in which we are rewarded in the workplace by being able to perform multiple tasks almost simultaneously, to the detriment of the outcome.

  2. After several attempts and interruptions, I managed to read through this entire post while I was on a conference call, drinking my Earl Grey tea, planning for the soccer tournament next weekend, and driving on the tollway to work.

    Imagine my relief in seeing that you’re finally, baby step at a time, recognizing at least some of the validity of my skepticism towards technology! 🙂

    I’m concerned about the kids growing up in this environment, for whom it is perfectly normal and reasonable to carry on several conversations on their iPhone and iPad simultaneously, while also playing their PS4 with 7 virtual friends. Kids for whom it is normal to use their tablet or smart phone throughout dinner rather than having to converse with the real people around them. How will these kids learn to read an entire paragraph at a time, let alone a book not composed of 160-character chapters? How will their brains be wired by the time they’re adults, after multi-tasking through their developmental years?

    Will they have any friends who they actually talk to in person and go camping with in the desert by the hotsprings, and stay up all night watching the stars and the Aurora Borealis? Will they get outside enough to experience hiking in the wilderness of the High Sierra, swimming in those pristine alpine lakes in the summer sunshine, and feeling the rivulets of a waterfall where there is no cell service?

    • Skepticism toward technology? Haha…you wish! 😀 Sorry, but I only unplug while camping or hiking (except for geocaching, of course). I don’t know — I am less concerned about this generation because of the available technologies. I am sure that throughout the generations, the previous generation held concerns about the next generation due to the current social, cultural, or technological changes. Technology can be a great thing. The easy access to information can help us to learn faster about new subjects, become more effective at work, and try new recipes with a few clicks of a button. Cell phones and networking technologies allow us to do our work from multiple environments, and allow us more flexibility with our work schedules, freeing up time for family. There are so many advantages.

      I think that the bigger concern is in the way we choose to use these technologies. They can make for very useful tools (imagine if you had a car smart enough to drive for you while you sipped your tea and focused on that conference call?). But we can also become overly dependent on those tools, or train ourselves to see it as a reward to quickly shift our attention from one thing to the next instead of focusing. Want to play a video game? Play a video game. Want to browse the web? Do it while you are not watching TV, studying, or talking with friends. As for me, I have to train myself to put away the Kindle app and stop reading during meals with my kids. Of course, this applies to plain old-fashioned paper books, too. 😉

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