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Late Sociologist Warned About Multitasking's Effect on Wellness
Carrie Steckl, Ph.D.: Tue, Nov 19th 2013
Are you a multitasker? Do you consider yourself a master at doing three (or more) things at once, such as checking email, watching a football game, and fixing dinner? If so, you're not alone - our society has become an army of multitaskers. With the explosion of distractions, technology, and raised expectations for productivity in our lives, we feel compelled to do as much as possible all at once. In fact, many of us feel impatient or even bored if we are only doing one thing at a time.
Yet according to Clifford Nass, a well-known Stanford University professor who recently passed away, multitasking isn't so efficient after all. In fact, it may be detrimental to our well-being.
Nass was a pioneer in sociological research on multitasking. His interest in the topic began when he was assigned to be a "dorm dad" in 2007 and moved into a freshman residence hall with hundreds of multitasking students. He witnessed students - even those who were dating each other - texting to communicate instead of simply walking down the hall and knocking on the other person's door. When asked why they did this, students told Nass that it was more efficient to communicate that way.
Nass began to observe students' multitasking - which might include simultaneously talking on the phone, watching videos, texting, checking Facebook, and studying - in a more scientific way. While he was hoping to find the secrets to high-level multitasking, he ended up discovering that "effective multitasking" was actually an oxymoron. In fact, he and other researchers found that the heaviest, most chronic multitaskers (many of whom claimed they had superior control over their mental focus) performed horribly at cognitive tasks such as organizing information, switching between various tasks and recognizing significant tasks over insignificant ones.
Nass also found that people who engaged in four or more "information streams" at once on a regular basis had more difficulty focusing on just one thing, even when they stopped multitasking and tried to maintain a singular focus. The damages of multitasking bled over into writing skills as well - multitaskers wrote in shorter sentences, crafted paragraphs that were disconnected, and lacked smooth transitions.
In other words, the increase in multitasking in our society seems to be coupled with a decrease in complex thinking. And that's scary. In a world that is becoming ever more complex and challenging to navigate - emotionally, cognitively, socially, and physically - the last thing we need is for our brains to turn to mush because we multitask so much that we can no longer concentrate on what's really important.
So in honor of Dr. Nass, I encourage you to try to tone down the multitasking. Try working on only one task at a time, because research shows that it actually takes you less time to do things this way. That's right, multitasking is actually less efficient, not more. By focusing on singular tasks, we can do something good for our brain and our to-do list at the same time. Now that's a kind of multitasking I can get behind.
Chawkins, S. (November 8, 2013). Sociologist warned of multitasking's dangers. Chicago Tribune (Online Kindle version).