I used to think that I was a champion multi-tasker. I could get work done and watch TV at the same time. I still listen to podcasts while I work and now I read my new Kindle while I brush my teeth. But I personally have learned, which is what a new study showed, that people who multi-task a lot may actually be bad at it. They may be unable to ignore what does not matter.
The people who multitask the most are the ones who are worst at it. That’s the surprising conclusion of researchers at Stanford University, who found multitaskers are more easily distracted and less able to ignore irrelevant information than people who do less multitasking.
“The huge finding is, the more media people use the worse they are at using any media. We were totally shocked,” Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford’s communications department, said in a telephone interview.
via Study finds people who multitask often bad at it – Yahoo! News.
I was an unwilling subject in a multi-tasking vs concentration experiment as a child. In grades 4-6 I attended a brand new state of the art elementary school called University Park (named from a nearby street inexplicably miles from any university). I was in the first class to spend a compete year at the new school which was an experimental design called a “pod system”. Brilliant educators knew that there are advantages to team teaching elementary school kids. If you have 2 4th grade classes and 2 4th grade teachers why not let the teacher who is better in science teach both classes science while the teacher who is better in english teaches them both english. A perfectly rational theory which I think makes perfect sense. But that did often mean numbers of kids moving from one class to another, so these brilliant educators decided to remove the walls between the classrooms. And heck, as long as we are removing walls why not get rid of all the walls and have 6 classrooms of 30+ kids in one large room with only some closets and shelves between them. 6 classes grades 4, 5 and 6 in one big room. Get the picture? You are trying to take a test and the classroom behind you is showing the rather entertaining film “Donald Duck in Mathemagic Land” (which may not be completely responsible for my love of math but was none the less the nadir of 1960s educational film achievement).
I learned to concentrate but I also learned to perform one task while chaos reigned around me. I would go home and do my homework in front of the TV set to continue this grand experiment.
Until recently I was convinced that I was just that good at multitasking that I could still work in front of the TV and since I work at a semi-virtua company I can, if I like, work from home on most days. What I learned is that, at least for me personally, there is an order of distraction to different stimuli. When work and a good TV show are vying for my attention the visual stimulation of the TV show will cause me to miss, I sadly must now admit, the work in front of me. Interestingly it appears to me that when the work is visually here in front of me on my laptop and the stimulus is audible (like a good podcast) that when there is a conflict it is the podcast then I have to rewind because I did not hear what was said.
I feel like the de-throned king of multitasking when I have to admit that I seek out a quiet office at work away from the distraction of conversation, away from the TV and errands of home. I have been given the freedom to work virtually anyway and end up commuting into the office. Am I some 1900s throw back on our road to complete integration into the matrix? Even at home I have a room, this room, which is where I podcast and blog. It is an environment prepared for work and not distraction. So I ask you… is it just me? Stanford says no.