Editors' pick: Originally published Sept. 1.
Despite warnings from psychologists and productivity experts in innumerable studies advising against multitasking, people are more overwhelmed than ever and still trying to do more than one complex task at once.
"The need to multitask has gotten progressively worse through they years," says Dr. Michael Gardner, associate professor of educational psychology at the University of Utah. "Trying to accomplish one or two complex tasks at once requires a considerable amount of attention. Plus the time it takes to switch back and forth from task to task requires the brain to reload information into memory, ultimately making the individual considerably less productive than just tackling one task at a time."
Gardner says trying to retain information during a lecture while updating a Facebook status or post is a good example of what he sees in academia. "Ultimately one or both tasks will suffer, because since both tasks require cognitive attention, information in the lecture will be missed or errors will be made," Gardner says.
In some cases errors can produce a deadly result. Gardner points to research by colleague David Strayer, a University of Utah psychology professor whose research on driving while distracted points to how people overestimate their ability to perform multiple complex tasks at once. "The people who are most likely to multitask harbor the illusion they are better than average at it, when in fact they are no better than average and often worse," he said in a release regarding his research.
Strayer and psychology professor David Sanbonmatsu studied 310 students on their actual multitasking ability, perceived multitasking ability, cell phone use while driving, use of a wide array of electronic media, and personality traits such as impulsivity and sensation seeking.
They found people who think they are strong multitaskers are not successful, but those who scored high on the actual multitasking ability don't like to multitask. Participants who multitasked were more impulsive and less able to block out distractions, which is more likely to hamper performance. Approximately 70% of the participants said they were good at multitasking.
"If you have people who are multitasking a lot, you might come to the conclusion they are good at multitasking," Strayer says. "In fact, the more likely they are to do it, the more likely they are to be bad at it."
Is Technology to Blame?
Gardner says even the audible "ding" when you receive a text or when email hits your inbox can be distracting, so does technology promote multitasking?
"It depends upon the type of technology," says Dr. Reynol Junco, associate professor of education and human computer interaction at Iowa State University. "For instance using Twitter with students on campus for updates has proven to improve communication and retention. But more immersive technologies that promote longer engagement can be a distraction. It's the difference between using social media like Yik Yak, where students might check in every now and then, versus a game like Pokemon Go that requires more time and attention."
However, trying to balance social media management while studying is another example of how multitasking doesn't work. Junco examined the impact managing social media and texting has on studying, ultimately finding that students who tried to accomplish everything simultaneously had lower grade point averages.
"Not all technology has a negative impact," Junco says. "For instance the use of emails does not have the same drawbacks as texting or social media use while studying. It's also not the technology that is the problem, but how we are using it. Self regulating how we use the app or technology would help but we all know how challenging it is to do that."
Gardner says millennials and younger generations will often respond they can handle the infusion of technology because they are "wired differently" than previous generations. "But that's not true," he says. "Students will say they are different but 20 years of electronics have not changed the course of development and students are not better equipped to multitask the technology just because they grew up with it."
Can We Change?
Halting the need to multitask can be as tough as breaking any adverse habit but can be done, says Cathy Sexton, productivity strategist, coach and author from The Productivity Experts.
"You must create a new habit, meaning you can't give up in a few weeks," Sexton advises. "The old wives tale of it taking 21 days is false. Instead you need to give it at least 90 days before it becomes a habit, so if you fall off the wagon, you have to get back at it again and not just give up. You may trip up again, but those times will be shorter and far less frequent."
Sexton also suggests making a to-do list on an index card at the beginning of each day. "Write down the top three things you want to accomplish on one side and then maybe one or two on the other side," she says. "Start with number one and see what happens when you focus on just one thing at a time. If you are interrupted, flip the card over so you aren't trying to still work on the project. Once the interruption is over, flip the card back over and continue to work." Sexton is also a fan of using a timer to set pace for projects or tasks.
Eliminating technology alarms or "dings" can also prevent distraction. "Turn off your phone ringer or computer speakers so you aren't distracted when you receive an email or a text," Gardner says. "Set aside time to check your phone and emails rather than turning attention away while you are working."