It's been amply documented that the idea of achieving greater productivity through "multi-tasking" is a myth. Here's the late Stanford professor of communication Clifford Nass on an NPR broadcast with Ira Flatow in 2013:
The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They're basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking... People who multitask all the time can't filter out irrelevancy. They can't manage a working memory. They're chronically distracted [but] they actually think they're more productive... [They say,] "When I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am laser-focused." And unfortunately, they've developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They're suckers for irrelevancy. They just can't keep on task.
The problem is that when it comes to cognitively demanding work, we can truly focus on just one task at at time. We can switch rapidly from task to task, but that results in a tremendous loss of efficiency. So we're never actually "multi-tasking"--we're working serially on multiple tasks, and each time we switch we have to repopulate the items in working memory in order to return to the new task at hand. Not only is this slow and inefficient, but it also makes it profoundly more difficult to experience the state of mind that most of us require in order to do our most creative and imaginative work. Multi-tasking prevents us from entering a state of flow.
Even more troubling, because our brains remain plastic and malleable throughout our lives, when we consistently engage in multi-tasking we reshape our brains for the worse, and we become habituated to this counterproductive way of working. It can be so difficult to return to a more focused way of working that Nass likens the experience to addiction:
NASS: [W]hen we try to revert our brains back, our brains are plastic but they're not elastic. They don't just snap back into shape.
FLATOW: Can you retrain them to come back?
NASS: We would love to know. It's very hard because frankly in the few studies we've tried to do it, people refuse. It's almost impossible to get a group of people who believe their lives are built around multitasking to stop for two weeks to actually see whether their brains have changed.
FLATOW: What an addiction. It must be really--is it correct to call it an addiction?
NASS: There's some debate about what the term addiction means, but by any of the behavioral measures of addiction, these people are absolutely, positively addicted.
Bear in mind that this self-destructive behavior isn't happening in a vacuum. As I tell my students in The Art of Self-Coaching, we are the targets of multi-billion dollar industries that are bent on capturing our attention, and we've welcomed into our lives a rich assortment of devices that are capable of distracting and interrupting us at every turn. So what can we do?
- Recognize that our attention is our most precious resource.
- Expect a return on our attention when we invest it and understand how to spend it wisely.
- Stop rubbernecking and allowing ourselves to be so easily distracted.
- And most importantly, manage our emotions in order to focus more effectively. This entails building capacity through such practices as meditation, minimizing interruptions from our devices, and blocking out time and space for unstructured, deep thought.
For more, see The Art of Self-Coaching @StanfordBiz, Class 3: Attention. Thanks to the late Clifford Nass--I never had the privilege of meeting him, but I heard him lecture once, and it was deeply thought-provoking.
Photo by Nathan Jones. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.