Does Multitasking Ruin Your Ability to Multitask?

Last week I went on a gorgeous scenic train ride through the Canadian Rockies. We were pretty much entranced by the scenery, which only got better with each mile.

A couple seated near us took it in differently. In their 30s, they each spent about 50% of their time reading a Kindle (latest model, her), or an iPhone kindle book or iPhone game (him).  Another 25% of their time was spent sleeping.  The remaining 25% was jumping up with their (very cool hi-powered) cameras and going to the open-air platform to snap a few pics, to then return to their digital or somnolent worlds.

I felt myself feeling judgmental, which of course is my problem, not theirs. At least I didn’t say anything. But in the end, it got me curious.

Who does that?
From the BBC comes a possible answer.
A study reported in the British Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and reported in the BBC News Blog suggests that three skills are critical for successful multi-tasking. They are:

·        Paying attention and screening out irrelevant information

·        Organizing working memory

·        Ability to switch tasks.

The study identified two groups of people: multitaskers, and non-multitaskers, and applied a classic psychological test of each skill to each group. In each case, the non-multitaskers out-performed the multitaskers. 

Say the study’s authors: 
"The shocking discovery of this research is that [high multitaskers] are lousy at everything that’s necessary for multitasking," Professor Nass said.
"The irony here is that when you ask the low multitaskers, they all think they’re much worse at multitasking and the high multitaskers think they’re gifted at it."
Several of the commenters on the blogpost insist either that they themselves are excellent multitaskers, or that the tests selected do not in fact test for multi-tasking. Me, I’m inclined to go with the authors.

The study authors themselves suggest that the remaining “pressing question” is whether multitasking degrades skills, or people with degraded skills are drawn to multitasking. Me, I figure it’s a classic predisposition-plus-opportunity thing, not unlike alcoholism or a bad sense of humor.

I hypothesize that playing an iPhone game while travelling through the Canadian Rockies on a sight-seeing train probably qualifies as multi-tasking. While I couldn’t judge how well they were doing in the digital world, I suggest they were doing badly at noticing the analog world, and their switching appeared pretty clumsy.  As to sleeping: hey, what do I know what their nights were like? Maybe they were massively jet-lagged.

But enough about others. I wrote the first paragraph of this blogpost watching a re-run of Two and a Half Men, one I’ve probably seen twice before. And I stopped in the middle to upgrade to Snow Leopard. Plus I like my coffee a lot, and like to claim it keeps me sharp, though I’m increasingly doubting that. So I’m not exactly pure snow here.

Plus, it’s not a value thing. There are a lot of things in this world that require being good at multi-tasking. More than in the past. The ability to focus and concentrate may still be critical to some things, but probably not as many, proportionately, as in the past.

But I do think focus and mindfulness and paying attention are critical to trust. Trust may be more rare, less frequently required, than in the past; but the nature of its requirements haven’t changed.

Maybe the big question is: can we switch gears between multi-task mode and single-minded focus mode? Is there a flip-switch move we can make, an exercise we can conduct, that will let us enter the other realm?

Judging from the couple next to us, it’s doubtful. Their social interaction, unlike most on the train, was pretty much nil, even with each other. And judging from my own experience, changing habits is awfully, awfully hard.

It takes a lot of focus to be able to multi-process, especially since multi-processing degrades the ability to focus. 


10 replies
  1. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hi, Charlie,

    It seems studies are appearing regularly suggesting the downside of multitasking on focusing, intentionality, mindfulness, effectiveness, efficiency, productivity  and brain functioning.

    Just yesterday highlighted a new study by Clifford Nass, Ph.D. at Stanford found that folks who multitask – texting, instant messaging, online video watching, word processing, Web surfing, and more — do worse on tests in which they need to switch attention from one task to another than people who rarely multitask in this way and that. Generally, heavy multitaskers are more easily distracted by irrelevant information than those who aren’t constantly in a multimedia frenzy.

    The research indicates that heavy multitaskers had slower response times, most often because they were more easily distracted by irrelevant information, and because they retained that useless information in their short-term memory. Etc. Etc.


    Now understand that most folks will let themselves off the multitasking hook by adamantly declaring that "I’m not a HEAVY multitasker" in the same way that an addict will say, for example, I only drink beer, or I only take the minimum dose of a painkiller, I only devour "less fat" bags of potato chips at one sitting, or an abuser who says, I only use an open hand when I hit her. You can’t be a little bit pregnant. You are or you aren’t.

    Simply, being constantly flooded with incoming information negates effective, conscious selectivity; filtering becomes problematic. One’s threshold of distractibility is lowered and as such ability to focus is reduced.

    Too, then the brain is conditioned to more and more stimulation and here is where the "addiction" begins. I can’t stop accessing my electronic stimuli. I’m on auto-pilot.

    On the social side, as perhaps one example of the social implications, I have a client whose high-powered spouse/attorney is always connected…..even in the midst of agreed-upon, set-time-aside, "quality-time" conversations (to support a failing relationship) when, sitting face-to-face, knee-to-knee, eye-to-eye, he checks his Blackberry!

    Then we wonder why our relationships seem to be evaporating, losing their fire, heart-felt connectivity and intensity. Maybe the answer is, "Oh, I know, on the Internet!"  Hmmm

  2. Charlie (Green)
    Charlie (Green) says:

    Ha ha, that’s precious Peter.  Yup, I’m sure the answer is on the internet, and if I can just get the latest 4G phone/browser going here I’ll text/tweet it to you.  Ooops, wait a minute, I’ve got a new tweet coming in…where was I?…Oh yes, 4G…

  3. Ian Brodie
    Ian Brodie says:

    I must admit, I struggle with the urge to multitask. It comes from two angles.

    Pseudo-rationally it seems more productive. Listen to a pdocast and read a book at the same time? Wow, I’m getting twice as much done.

    Type a blog post with the TV on in the background – work and fun.

    Of course, it doesn’t work like that. Each task is done badly.

    But the other angle is much more insidious. It seems to be an urge to escape from quiet time. Or perhaps from "being alone with my own inner voice" time. If I’m sitting in a taxi or on a train, the urge to just check the news or email is almost irrestistable. I can feel my left hand itching to pick up the iphone. And yet some of my greatest insights and inspirations have come in the very quiet time I’m desperately trying to avoid.



  4. Cindy King
    Cindy King says:

    I’ve never really given this much thought.  I just know that I have observed multitaskers around me and notice that they never seem to be able to apply the same level of high power of concentration that non-multitaskers can have and when they do try, it seems like a big effort.  Also I have noticed a higher rate of sloppiness and stupid mistakes with the multitaskers around me.

    Reading this article made me think of something else.  Most skilled international sales professionals need to process multiple sets of information at the same time during a cross-cultural sales encounter. This can be pretty intense.  It’s not always gathering different information to put through one decision process.  But it can also be carrying out several decision processes at one time with different sources of information.  All that goes on mentally.  Although you may be doing one thing to support two outcomes, there is no multiTASKING in what you actually do.  Anyway, this came to mind, because it involves a heightened sense of participation in "the moment" and multitasking here is NOT a good idea at all. 

  5. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    If you would like to test out how good you (or someone else) is at splitting your attention between different tasks, give this excercise a try:

    1. Turn on your television to a news program or news channel.
    2. Give the anchor a 1-2 second lead, and then while she or he is talking, repeat exactly what they are saying.

    Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  What you’re doing is listening and talking at the same time.  Try it, and see how long you can last. 

    This is an excercise you go through in training to be a simultaneous interpreter.  Of course, interpreters are listening to [Language A] and repeating in [Language B], while effecting simultaneous translation in the middle.  But to make it easy on you, for the purposes of this excercise, you get to work in the same language.

    If we are good at multitasking, then surely just listening and simultaneously repeating will be a piece of cake….

    I hope you or your readers interested in multitasking will give it a shot and report back.

    Keep in mind that this is also a trainable skill (hence its use as an excercise for interpreters), so if you would like to increase your powers of concentration, this exercise is a handy tool as well.

    Have fun!

  6. Cindy King
    Cindy King says:

    Shaula,  Good example!  I’ve done this before, but found it MUCH easier to listen to the TV through a headset… so I would not hear my own voice as much.  When I got good with the headset, I could then move onto the next step – trying to do the same thing without the headset.

    I guess this shows a different aspect to multitasking – one where you control the mental concentation for specific tasks. 

  7. Shaula
    Shaula says:

    Charlie, on the chance that this topic still interests you, I want to give you a link to a great and incisive article in Wired Magazine, that looks at the science behind the ‘technology and multi-tasking are damaging the brain’ scare stories that regularly make the media, and questions whether the ‘tech scare’ headlines are warranted given the findings.

    ‘Science’ (sic) reporting is so ften hyberbolic and sensationalist. It was a treat to find out about the actual studies behind the news stories and read a reasoned analysis of what they mean.

    Before you click through (and I hope you will, as the article is good), any guesses on what they conclude?


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