Friday, February 4, 2011

Are you good at multi-tasking?

Researchers have found that doing more is actually doing less

In a communication class, I brought up the notion that we are not very good at multi-tasking.  This comment was received with a large amount of opposition—understandably.  I know many folks believe they are excellent muti-taskers—especially the younger generations.  However, I notice in classes that those with laptops and smart phones often ask questions that have already been answered.  However, I can not take unscientific observations and anecdotal incidents to make this broad claim.  So, I did some research.

What I found was quite surprising.  All research I read found that we are not successful at multi-tasking regardless of our practice, experience, or gender. In fact, one researcher found that the more strongly one believed s/he was good at multi-tasking, the worse s/he really was.  Even more surprising, the serial multi-tasker was found to not only be less successful at multi-tasking but less successful at doing things one at a time.  This leads to the conclusion it is possible that multi-tasking actually causes other cognitive impairments. 

In the classroom, the discussion became heated and lots of anecdotal stories on successful multi-tasking and of the demands of being a college student, working, raising children, and maintaining relationships required skillful multi-tasking.  I agree with the need; however, I don’t believe we are very good at anything when we are doing so much.  Is it better to do things one at a time with full attention rather than doing many things at once?  I believe so, especially when it comes to communication effectiveness. 

When we are receiving many signals or information from several sources, it is impossible to filter out the irrelevant information from the relevant.  It gets all jumbled up in our minds.  And, when we try to recall information, it is mixed in with lots of irrelevant information according to Dr. Clifford Nass of Stanford University.

One woman was adamant that she could multi-task effectively—she had to with her busy schedule.  I talked about the findings and handed out copies of a couple of research papers on multi-tasking and an assignment was due on the reading.  One week later, I got the following email from her (this is exactly how she wrote it, I did not correct grammar or spelling):

I just wanted to share my experience yesterday of a perfect example that multi tasking does not work. So I left class Wayside and meet a friend for lunch at the Ram. As we were wrapping up I had received several emails and missed calls on my phone. So I was trying to wrap up my conversation with my friend, call my daughters school back, call my other daughter back. So i said goodbye so I could finish. I decided to stop by the bathroom on my way out as i was still glued to my phone checking an email from my instructor and goggle chatting with my boyfriend. I went in to the stall of the bathroom, did my business and heard an odd noise in the bathroom. I looked under the stall and there was an odd pair of shoes as well. What the hell i thought. To my suspire I had went into the men bathroom right by the urinals and did not even notice. I stood in the stall waiting for the man to leave and felt like a complete idiot lol....So for me multi tasking has got to stop lol. I need to make more time in my day to get the less important stuff done :) Hope you enjoyed lol! See you all on Monday

Even one of the staunchest defenders of multi-tasking softened up a bit.  It is a good story to share with everyone.  Do you believe you are a good multi-tasker?  It makes me wonder why our bosses in the workplace insist that we multi-task.

Here are a couple of links to cutting edge research on multi-tasking.  One is a podcast with transcript of an interview on NPR with Dr. Clifford Nass, the other is a paper on how multi-taskers were tested.

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