The myth and madness of multitasking

An old Psychology Professor told me recently how he had to write his PhD thesis by hand and paid a lady with a typewriter to type it up for him. Paying typists and drawing graphs by hand was the done thing in academia only a few decades ago.

How times have changed!

One could argue that thanks to word processors, the Internet and online journals, today’s students are able to research and write assignments with relative ease. Checking spelling, getting definitions of certain words and gathering information can be done within a matter of minutes, even seconds (depending of course on the speed of your computer and Internet connection).

Despite these incredible technological advancements, are students today any more productive than people were in the past?

I don’t think so.

21st century students face new challenges to getting their work done – overcoming distractions and not succumbing to the myth of multitasking.

Instead of wasting hours writing up neat notes for a typist, nowadays it’s highly likely that we will waste our time surfing the net, chatting online to our friends, looking at photos on Facebook and reading blogposts (Don’t feel guilty, keep reading!).

When was the last time you checked your email, had the television on, burned a CD for a friend and received a text message all at once? It seems to have become the norm for many of us to do several things at the same time.

Once we distracted ourselves with Spider Solitaire but now when we are bored we find ourselves being lured by sites such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, and/or we feel the need to text message a friend or two.

A Kaiser family foundation study found that young people (8-18 year olds) are now spending an average of more than 7.5 hours a day, seven days a week consuming media (e.g. watching movies and television, surfing the net and playing video games).

Without a doubt such a sedentary lifestyle is likely to negatively impact on our physical health. Research indicates that since 1985 the rate of obesity in boys has doubled and the rate for girls has tripled in Western Australia. According to the Premier’s Physical Activity Taskforce, one quarter of all Western Australian children are overweight or obese.

Whilst the physical impacts are obvious and have been for some time, until relatively recently there has been little discussion on the psychological and intellectual impacts of living primarily in virtual worlds and distracting ourselves with online sites, video games and other gadgets as we work.

A study conducted by the Institute of Psychiatry at the University of London found that people who were distracted by email and phone calls suffered a fall in IQ more than twice that found in marijuana smokers.

Another study at the University of California found that workers took an average of 25 minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or answering email and return to their original task.

So whilst you may feel like your being efficient as you type up that email and chat to your friend on the phone at the same time (Aren’t you so great? You’re doing all these things at once!), don’t be fooled. You’re actually being less efficient in the long run. In fact, researchers have found that you can be up to 40% slower to complete something when you multitask.

In addition, it has been found that multitasking prompts the release of stress hormones which can lead to us feeling frustrated, more aggressive and impulsive.

Professor of Psychology and Neurobiology, Russell Poldrack states –

“There is a cost to the way that our society is changing. Humans are not built to work this way [multitask]. We’re really built to focus.”

Some researchers have even gone as far as saying that constant engagement with sites such as Twitter, Bebo and Facebook may be causing changes in our brains that result in humans being more self centrered with shorter attention spans.

“We know how small babies need constant reassurance that they exist…My fear is that these technologies are infantilising the brain into the state of small children who are attracted by buzzing noises and bright lights, who have a small attention span and who live for the moment” states Baroness Susan Greenfield (British Scientist).

The good news is that you can change the way you work. Just like some people choose to give up smoking, drinking and eating junk food after becoming more aware of the physical and mental health effects, you may now feel compelled to practice focusing on one task at a time and spend less time online.

Recently, I’ve been testing out various strategies and programs to help me practice the art of focus and kick the habit of distracting myself with Facebook, etc. I’ll share more about these strategies in my next blog post.