Multiple Problems with Multitasking
by Nathan J. Lichtenstein | published Nov. 11th, 2013
I’m a multitasker. Between classwork, writing for Reporter and project managing the development of Reporter’s new website, a second (or third) set of hands would be wonderfully useful. I decided to challenge myself not to multitask while writing this piece so, dear reader, know that you have my full and undivided attention.
The late Dr. Clifford Nass of Stanford University focused his research on multitasking. According to a PBS interview published in February of 2010, Nass and his team conducted extensive research into how humans multitask and the effects of doing so. Nass categorized multitaskers into two different levels, high multitaskers and low multitaskers.
“[High multitaskers]… are constantly using many things at one time when it comes to media,” he said. “So let’s say they’re doing email while they’re chatting, while they’re on Facebook, while they’re reading Web sites, while they’re doing all these other things.”
Nass went on to define low multitaskers as people who are more focused on a single task at a time. “When they’re texting, they’re texting. When they’re reading a Web site, they’re reading a Web site.”
I fit into the category of a high multitasker. I have four email accounts, all synchronized to my cellphone, laptop and tablet. My cellphone is always on so I can be texted and called at any time of the day. Not surprisingly, Nass’s research showed that “multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.” They cannot filter information they are processing, sort information in their heads or easily switch from one task to another.
In a 2013 interview with NPR, Nass said that, in a way, people train their brains to multitask, and it’s hard to retrain it to not. Training your brain to multitask seems to be a trait, and problem, with my generation. My grandmother has a cellphone and a tablet, so for the purpose of this comparison we are equally connected to the digital world. Yet, when I am sitting in her living room chatting, I am the one who obsessively checks his phone every twenty minutes, not her. I, and those in my generation, are born into a world of “go, go, go” where things need to be done now and the only way to do so is to do it in tandem with other tasks.
I cannot speak for everyone but I know that, as Nass’s research suggests, I do better work when I am multitasking at a “low level”. While writing this article, I was just writing this article. I did not check my email or cellphone. Facebook was not open in my browser. My attention was given to the task at hand.
I do not foresee our society switching to one that is solely focused on the present. We are growing more digitally connected by the minute so multitasking is here to stay. However, I do want to challenge everyone reading this article to do what I did. Next time you have a task to do, devote your full attention to it. Turn off the TV, put away the cellphone and close Facebook. The productivity that comes from being disconnected is a wonderful feeling that we should all strive for.
Disagree? Click here to read an opposing viewpoint: "More Fun with Multitasking"
Illustrations by Emily Gage