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.