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Posted by: briansittley Comments: 47 0 Post Date: February 25, 2010

As a recent episode of PBS Frontline (the best show on TV, IMHO) entitled Digital Nation points out – once again  – the myth of multitasking is trumped by the reality.

I can do no better than to quote from the show (and website) the words of clinical psychologist and MIT professor Sherry Turkle, who has studied the phenomenon of doing more than one (or two or three or four) things at once, as is seen so often among today’s students and younger workforce:

“I teach the most brilliant students in the world,” says Turkle, “but they have done themselves a disservice by drinking the Kool-Aid and believing that a multitasking learning environment will serve their best purposes. There are just some things that are not amenable to being thought about in conjunction with 15 other things.”

Award-winning Frontline producer Rachel Dretzin learned this firsthand by taking a few tests of her own given by Stanford professor Clifford Nass.  “It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They get distracted constantly. Their memory is very disorganized. Recent work we’ve done suggests they’re worse at analytic reasoning,” Nass tells Dretzin. “We worry that it may be creating people who are unable to think well and clearly.”

The challenge for teachers and employers alike, particularly in the technology arena, seems to be keeping students engaged and interactive, while at the same time teaching them how to think critically and strategically and deeply. 

As one student confessed: “Honestly, I can’t sit somewhere for two hours straight and focus on anything.  Maybe it’s some technology dependence I’ve developed over the course of the years, but at this point I don’t think I can go back to just focusing on one thing.”

So… Put down the iPod, the Blackberry, the iPhone, the Facebook, the Twitter… and just back slowly away

If you can.

Comments (47)

  • opiumsweetheart Reply

    I agree. Multi-tasking is exhausting. Some people in my school thinks it’s good and will allow you to finish more work. You do finish more work but in a poor quality.

    February 25, 2010 at 11:02 am
  • Becky Reply

    So true. We’re told that multi-tasking = efficiency, but it’s the exact opposite. Since I started making a conscious effort to focus on one activity at a time (i.e. closing my e-mail browser entirely while working on a report), I’ve found that overall I have more free time. Go figure.

    February 25, 2010 at 11:08 am
  • jrvitalis Reply

    Great insight. The real question is how to put this to work from a practical perspective – it seems there is always a million things that have to get done RIGHT NOW. Reminds me a bit of a tweet from Dr. Srikumar Rao, author and professor of Creativity and Personal Mastery at Columbia Business School, who wrote, “Discovered that tasks get done only when I can avoid a higher priority task by doing it. There’s a lesson here somewhere.” Stop Pinching Your Sister! (Practical Parenting Tips Based on My Columbia MBA)

    February 25, 2010 at 11:20 am
  • Carlton Stith Reply

    In today’s society, there are far too many distractions which exist. Thanks to the technological advancements of the 20th and into the current century, the children of today (and even myself) have access to more tools than our ancestors. I believe that the human brain is more than adept at managing several things at once…

    February 25, 2010 at 11:28 am
  • cooper Reply

    YES YES YES!!!!! Having speant 20 years in the IT industry where, indeed, the multitasking kool-aid IV drip hangs in every cube, i applaud any effort to de-bunk this myth. bra – vo…

    February 25, 2010 at 11:31 am
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    February 25, 2010 at 11:39 am
  • Karen Kehr Reply

    Awesome, Brian!

    Although, gender differences in the female brain do favor multitasking over the male “one task at a time” brain. That’s why the cave men hunted (one task) and the women tended the children, foraged, kept the fire going, cooked, sewed, etc.

    February 25, 2010 at 12:09 pm
  • slamdunk Reply

    Excellent post. I agree, I am one of those multi-taskers who is more distracted than anything.

    February 25, 2010 at 12:39 pm
  • Sara Reply

    I was going to post something but then I got an email which I had to reply to after following up on a tweet then the cell phone rang and I then had to send a text….Now I can’t remember what I was going to say….

    February 25, 2010 at 1:25 pm
  • michenerlrc Reply

    There’s multitasking and there’s multitasking. A lot of the “work” people do today does not require 100% brain power. I don’t lose anything by writing this post as I listen to the person next to me and think about what I’m going to have for lunch (I really am listening and understanding, although the speaker doesn’t always believe me). However, I wouldn’t try doing these things if I needed to study.

    February 25, 2010 at 1:55 pm
    • sittingpugs Reply

      I think the more important factors are the kind and duration of activity would affect how well or how easily that person can do those things. Operating machinery, using manual dexterity, or harnessing hand-eye-coordination skills may not be the best time to be doing something else, but if you’re sitting in a chair and watching TV, you can still be talking on the phone with one person while you AIM with someone else and eat cereal.

      February 26, 2010 at 9:04 am
  • Jessica Reply

    This resonates well with an old proverb…”If you chase two rabbits, both will escape.”

    Guess it’s even worse if you have more than two rabbits to chase!

    February 25, 2010 at 2:08 pm
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    February 25, 2010 at 2:18 pm
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    February 25, 2010 at 2:41 pm
  • David Hennessey Reply

    Hi Brian,
    Thank you for posting this to your large audience. From my training related to how the human mind really works focusing on one thing at any particular moment is always a quicker path to success.
    You may be interested to know a friend mentioned to me the book called Elsewhere USA talks in one chapter about the negative impact of multitasking.
    All the best to you and your readers,

    February 25, 2010 at 3:15 pm
  • Gloris Reply

    Thank you! I’ll how this to my college freshman daughter. Hopefully, I’ll catch her between tasks and she’ll actually pay attention to it! 🙂

    February 25, 2010 at 3:58 pm
  • Coria Reply

    So true, we’ve become a society that doesn’t pay attention to detail anymore because of multi-tasking, I must admit that I’m a statistic! 🙁

    February 25, 2010 at 4:04 pm
  • pradateufelchen Reply

    well I guess it is not genetic but just a question of training – I f.e. hat violin lessons since the age of 3 and piano lessons and done always lots of sports and have been interested in loads of differnet topics and things and I guess this trained my multitasking abilities although they are limited…
    I can learn and write better while listening music, it is no problem for me to watch a movie and read a book and know the content of both afterwords and I can write an email and be on the phone at the same time…but other things like learning two different school subjects are in no way possible and effective – don’t know why – maybe it’s listening that makes no problems to me while doing something else cause of my early music-education?
    Well all in all I think it’s a nice thing but shouldn’t be a disadvantage if you are not able to – as long as you do the stuff you have to 🙂

    February 25, 2010 at 5:00 pm
  • ctrlzworld Reply

    I dunno–I have ADD (or ADD like symptoms) and a lot of the time i just CANNOT sit still if I am only concentrating on one thing. It is like i need to keep my right brain entertained and away from distracting my left brain, while my left-brain is trying to learn stuff. So I watch tv, listen to the radio and do homework–and get twice as much done than if I tried to just concentrate on working alone.

    February 25, 2010 at 5:08 pm
  • chunter Reply

    I think this is an issue that varies by individual, so that the much simpler truth isn’t that multitasking is bad, it is that we as people must take notice when our personal quality of effort suffers. There is nothing wrong with stopping certain tasks momentarily, then returning to them again later.

    I’ve noticed a different problem around me, though I am only speaking for myself when I say this; it is the inability of people to prioritize their problems. I have multiple acquaintances for whom every issue is a problem that must be solved immediately. If you don’t completely understand, imagine this voicemail:

    “Call me as soon as you get this.”

    Upon returning the call, you may be expecting:

    “My father is in the emergency room.”

    but instead you typically get:

    “What are you up to? Let’s go out to eat.”

    At that point you get the “boy who cried wolf” problem; it becomes very hard to take that person’s issues seriously.

    Is being able to tell what needs to be solved immediately apart from what can patiently wait an effect of poor multitasking?

    February 25, 2010 at 5:47 pm
  • Jingle Reply

    the art truly says everything.
    informative and insightful post.

    February 25, 2010 at 7:26 pm
  • Lakia Reply

    I enjoy multitasking, although it can be very strenuous at times… :/

    February 25, 2010 at 7:44 pm
  • tejas815 Reply

    I thought we previously called multi-tasking ADD.

    February 25, 2010 at 8:45 pm
  • allpointsbulletin Reply

    Really? Brain 100% focused on one thing? It’d be hard for our body to function.

    How many people drive thinking of nothing else but steering? There are numerous inputs processed (the person stepping off the curb, the car behind approaching fast, etc). And if the radio is on, we know it’s not 100% focus. Even with the radio off you are probably thinking about what you are going to do when you reach your destination, today’s meeting, plans for the weekend, or monitoring or talking to the child in the back seat, yada yada. Somehow MOST of us can handle that multitasking (notice I said most).

    Effective multitasking requires the ability to manage the concurrent tasks/threads and their priority (dynamically). If you are lousy at managing tasks one at a time, don’t expect to be able to handle more than one. Management includes deciding what to or not to perform concurrently and when.

    Like anything, a majority of people might be able to do it but not at a competent or high level (e.g. gold). There is a reason a small group out of billions are in the Olympics. In the end, I think it comes down to the individual.

    February 25, 2010 at 9:01 pm
  • Richard Reply

    I may not be in the workforce, but as a student I know that lying to yourself and believing you’re a good multitasker just ends up turning a one-hour assignment into an all-nighter.

    February 25, 2010 at 9:14 pm
  • arminee Reply

    Yes, some people multitask better than others, but some tasks are better suited to multi-tasking as well. You can’t do deep sustained thinking while you’re firing off an email or watching a movie, or talking on the phone!

    February 25, 2010 at 9:54 pm
  • Valerie Reply

    Oh, how I sometimes long for the days of Pilgrimage. Of course, times were doughty, and learning was efficient!

    February 25, 2010 at 10:30 pm
  • corbeaurouge Reply

    Ah, and people consider multitasking a skill!

    February 25, 2010 at 11:06 pm
  • Isabel Yepes Reply

    Being a multitasker all my life, I can say that it helps me to put attention to many things and co-relate them.

    I think young people fault isn’t being multitaskers, it is not having enough discipline to focus when it is necessary.

    February 25, 2010 at 11:25 pm
  • rudyphilistine Reply

    I’m really sorry to have to advertise, but my blog’s brand new and sitting at about three views per day.
    Please, help my self-confidence?

    February 25, 2010 at 11:38 pm
  • Vino Reply

    Agreed! Multi-tasking’s fine BUT not everything can be juggled in both hands simultaneously: that’d be more like willingly digging ur own grave. I think the best thing one cud do is to assess what can be grouped into one slot of time n done together, and leave out the ones that need ur sole attention, hence a more focused attention.

    February 25, 2010 at 11:43 pm
  • Heart Reply

    Agree a 100%.. !! I have seen this in myself.. Thanks to my IPhone which was a birthday gift last year.. I have delayed responses when people ask me questions, my mind is always wandering over my huge TO DO list that doesnt seem to be exhausted.. and I need 10 sticky notes to get one thing done..!! Thanks for reminding again that multi-tasking is not something we should be proud of.. !! Will go and work on this and ONLY this now.. 🙂

    February 25, 2010 at 11:46 pm
  • pt4themind Reply

    Great post. Singleness of purpose.

    February 26, 2010 at 12:12 am
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  • 黄亮亮 Reply


    February 26, 2010 at 4:53 am
  • Edge of Darkness Reply

    The content of thanks, very helpful

    February 26, 2010 at 7:13 am
  • CHIA YH Reply

    I am glad that someone point this out. I have two children of my own, the first one I drill into him to ‘do one thing at a time’. He is coping well in school. The second one did not had the luxury of the drill, and today, I think he is easily distracted…I am for ‘one thing at a time’!

    February 26, 2010 at 8:14 am
  • Oscar Reply

    I agree to some extent. Multitasking does consume mental resources, but not enormous amounts.
    We perform multitasking all the time, breathing and reading, writing, listening to music and so on… without being hinderd.
    Trying to perform complex tasks at the same time, however, is another thing. Reading the paper while writing an email and talking to a friend on the phone is very hard to do at the same time.
    I’d say that it’s OK to multitask, but only one important thing at a time. Since we can only focus on one thing at any given time, it’s important not to lose focus and spend it on irrelevant things.

    February 26, 2010 at 8:40 am
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    February 26, 2010 at 9:54 am
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  • Cudds Reply

    Yeah, definitely going to have to say it’s up to the individual to identify if multitasking is hurting them. Multitasking is so frickin easy to do. And once you learn all your keyboard short cuts, it’s super fast on a computer.

    I like switching between different thoughts, especially if I don’t need to have something completed imediately. It’s almost like a small break for my brain, but I research/learn things I like during this ‘break’.

    February 26, 2010 at 10:23 am
  • peterjmathis Reply

    I’ve heard this before, but I don’t let it stop me (most of the time). Breaking the multi-tasking habit can be difficult.

    February 26, 2010 at 12:03 pm
  • Adam Reply

    10 Point Manifesto on How to Work Better By Fischli and Weiss. 1-Do One Thing at a Time.

    February 28, 2010 at 2:36 am
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