Think you are able to perform media multitasking? Think again!! Turns out that we are really terrible at media multitasking - especially those that do it the most!
Although many prior studies have studied the topic of multitasking, a landmark research study performed in 2009 at Stanford University by Clifford Nass, Eyal Ophir, and Anthony Wagner found strong evidence to support just hour poorly we are at chronic media multitasking.
Their research, which focused specifically on chronic media multitasking, originally set out to learn what made high volume media multitaskers so effective and efficient at their craft. They were actually looking for the special traits associated with heavy multitaskers to try to understand what made them so successful.
However, the results of their research found quite the opposite results to their great surprise!
The result of their research, which focused on a group of heavy multitaskers and compared them to low multitaskers, discovered that the performance of the low multitaskers was actually very good at several multitasking tests while the high multitaskers actually performed poorly at the same tests.
They investigated several different cognitive areas, including switching speed between tasks, filtering out irrelevant information, and using working memory.
Yet across all three of these of these areas, the high multitaskers consistently performed much worse than the low multitaskers, making the high multitaskers actually terrible at what they were supposed to be experts at.
It has yet to be determined if the poor performance of the high multitaskers is due to a cognitive deficit, if they are simply unable to concentrate as well as the low multitaskers, if their frequent high-levels of multitasking actually damage their ability to multitask, or if there is yet some other factor involved in the difference.
One item the researchers did find is that the high multitaskers were much more subject to analyzing non-relevant information, or to quote the researchers;
But the bottom line is that chronic media multitasking results in worse multitasking performance.
So what are some of the recommendations that resulted from the study to reduce the impact of multitasking?
Follow the 20 minute task focus rule
- This means that you dedicate a 20 minute block of time to a specific task, focus on it, and then switch to another task.
- You do switch tasks, but just in 20 minute increments, not 1 minute or 20 second increments.
"Don't be a sucker for Email" (Sound familiar?)
- As we have discussed previously, Email is probably one of the largest distractions for business workers, with many people checking Email on an almost continual basis.
- This results in a huge amount of interruptions during your day, resulting in significant work fragmentation and switching costs.
- Instead, follow the recommendations to only check your e-mail a few scheduled times per day, and turn off your Email notifications to avoid distractions.
There have been some follow-up studies to the 2009 Nass study that have questioned some of the results, most notably Alzahabi & Becker (2011), and Minear et. Al (2013), but the results of this study are strong enough that we should consider multitasking to be something best left to supercomputers!
Instead, learn to focus our attention, reduce distractions, and try to minimize the well documented negative impacts of frequent interruptions and distractions.
Ophir E, Nass C, Wagner AD. Cognitive control in media multitaskers.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. 2009;106(37):15583-15587. doi:10.1073/pnas.0903620106.
Alzahabi, R. & Becker, M. (2011). In defense of media multi-tasking. No increase in task-switch or dual-task costs. Journal of Vision, 11, article 102 doi: 10.1167/11.11.102.
Minear, M., Brasher, F., McCurdy, M., Lewis, J.,& Younggren, A. (2013). Working memory, fluid intelligence, and impulsiveness in heavy media multitaskers. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 20(6), 1274-01281, doi: 10.3758/s13423-013-0456-6.