Beware! Multi-Tasking Doesn’t Make You Smarter or More Effective

Here’s a quick check: what else are you doing right now as you read this post? Are you on alert for new tweets, emails, instant messages, and Facebook status updates? If so, you are part of a generation of multi-taskers whose attention is focused on multiple activities throughout the day. It is a common belief among students that multi-tasking is a valuable time management tool; however, many have mistaken virtual busywork and distractions for tasks and as a result, they have lost control of their time and effectiveness. There are four primary reasons why multi-tasking has a negative impact on students’ classroom performance and by recognizing these elements corrective actions can be taken to improve efficiency.

1. Inability to Concentrate

In the article, Studies on Multitasking Highlight Value of Self-Control, the use of technology and social media by students was highlighted and it was noted that when students “pay continuous partial attention to everything, it has resulted in their having difficulty concentrating deeply on anything.” This happens for students who are ready to engage in email, text messaging, or social media because they are not fully focused on one task. It can become a problem when students are trying to study and need their concentration to fully process and interpret the meaning of what they are reading.

Clifford Nass, a Stanford University cognitive scientist, conducted tests to answer the question: “What happens to people who are multi-tasking all the time?” The results were not too surprising as it was found that “in every test, students who spent less time simultaneously reading e-mail, surfing the web, talking on the phone and watching TV performed best.” The study has been criticized for having a small sample size (19 students from the total participant population who acknowledged that they multi-tasked); however, the results are indicative of a common barrier to reading comprehension – reduced concentration because of distractions.

2. Information Overload

Another potential problem for multi-taskers is that they may be prone to information overload. This is especially true for students who have numerous Internet browser windows open while they are studying and trying to read, absorb, and process information from multiple sources. In my post, Avoiding Information Overload, I indicated that information overload can cause you to lose focus, experience frustration and stress, and have a negative effect on your ability to communicate. It also has a negative impact on the knowledge acquisition process because none of the information acquired will be retained in long-term memory if you are simply reading on a surface level.

The most challenging aspect for students occurs when there is too much information to process and they are not able to focus or concentrate, as the full benefit of anything read will never be gained. Over time, performance and participation in class may decline if you do not know how to process information received in an effective manner. This is especially problematic for online students since your instructor cannot see you. They may not fully understand your situation or the reason why you are not doing well. Your instructor may also think that you do not care or that you have lost interest, and if you don’t ask for assistance, you can quickly get behind in your work.

3. Impaired Cognitive Functioning

Margaret Heffernan, author of Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, also wrote a post, Why Multi-tasking Makes Us Stupid. Heffernan indicated that “we cannot take in infinite amounts of information simultaneously and, when we try to, it's simple: we create a bottleneck and lose control over what gets in and what gets left behind.” She talks about the loss of critical thinking skills as a result of this bottleneck, which happens when we have too much going on and are distracted.

Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to our Brains, participated in an interview with Stephen Colbert and a highlight is presented in the video clip below.

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Carr refers to studies that found the more people multi-task, the worse they get at multi-tasking. He points to reading through Internet sources because it causes a form of reading where we are skimming rather that fully absorbing what is read. Carr said that we need to get our attention back so that we are able to fully reflect on what we are reading, which will engage our higher cognitive functioning or deepest thoughts.

4. Failure to Stay Organized

Another adverse effect from the problem of over multi-tasking is that it leads to being disorganized. Clifford Nass, director of Stanford University’s Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Laboratory, conducted a study about multi-tasking and highlights are provided in the video below.

The results of the study found that multi-taskers are ineffective with all aspects of multi-tasking; they are “terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they’re terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they’re terrible at switching from one task to another.” It is virtual disorganization prompted by having too many things to do.

How Should You Take Corrective Action?

It may seem that the answer implied is to stop any form of multi-tasking; however, that is not a realistic or practical solution – especially for students who are balancing numerous responsibilities. It would be more effective to minimize the number of distractions and things that are competing for your attention so that you can be focused on the task at hand, which is necessary for studying and writing. In my post, The Hidden Dangers of Social Media Use by College Students, I shared information from Dr. Larry Rosen’s book iDisorder: Understanding Our Obsession with Technology and Overcoming Its Hold on Us. Rosen indicated that there is a great deal of mental activity required to use technological-based tools and programs, which translates into overuse and ineffectiveness. A proactive approach that Rosen recommends is to take a break every few hours and for a 15 minute time period, allow your brain to reset.

Gary Small, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA, has also stated that “despite people's perception that they are doing more and at a faster pace when they multi-task, the brain seems to work better when implementing a single sustained task, one at a time.” Nicholas Carr recommends the development of mental discipline to overcome the innate ability of the human mind to be distracted, especially for those who are living a fast-pace life. This can be accomplished by reading for a specific amount of time as a means of developing concentration and focus.

If you are working with several projects at a time it may be necessary to muti-task. However, if your multi-tasking begins to affect your ability to concentrate and you are not able to fully comprehend what you’ve read, then it is time to consider a new strategy. When multi-tasking involves distractions rather than tasks, a loss of focus can prevent you from doing your best in class. Consider how you use your time and assess your ability to stay dedicated to one task at a time. Your successful performance in class depends upon your ability to engage your cognitive functions and fully participate in the learning process, which requires concentrated effort and focused attention.

You can follow Dr. Bruce A. Johnson on Twitter @DrBruceJ and Google+.

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