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To Multitask or Not; That is the Question

Dr. Greg Ketchum, KRON 4 News with Rob Black
April 2, 2007

Today's younger generation pride themselves on their ability to multitask, for example to do homework at the same time that they are IM'ing friends and talking on the cell phone, and believe this makes them more productive and gives them a leg up on older generations. Certainly the explosion of technology makes it possible for anyone to multitask, but is all of this technology and the resultant multitasking really all it's cracked up to be? Well, according to several recent research reports multitasking has it's limits.

In one recent study, workers at Microsoft took an average of 15 minutes to "return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment Web sites." NY Times, 3/30/07. Think of the lost productivity across all American companies.

Another study at UCLA looked at brain activity in students in their 20's while multitasking versus concentrating on only one task. Researchers initially found similar success rates when uni-tasking versus multitasking. However, when subjects were interviewed later, those who concentrated on only one task showed better learning and recall of the material. The really interesting finding had to do with the different parts of the brain that were active when focused on one activity vs. multitasking. When subjects were concentrating on only one task, the hippocampus - the part of the brain responsible for storing and recalling information - was engaged. However, when they were multitasking the hippocampus was silent and the striatum - the part of the brain used to learn repetitive skills - was active.

Finally, in a study at Oxford University a group of 18 to 21 year olds and a group of 35 to 39 year olds were given a mental task to do (translate images into numbers using a simple code). With no interruptions, the 18 to 21 year olds did 10% better than the older group. However, when both groups were interrupted by a phone call, a text message or an IM, the older group matched the younger group in both speed and accuracy. The researchers concluded that while the "older people think more slowly...they have a faster fluid intelligence, so they are better able to block out interruptions and choose what to focus on."

So What is the Bottom Line on Multitasking?

1) Know When To Multitask and When to Turn it Off: Learn to use it as a tool, not as a default position. You may get more done, but you will retain less. It can become an addiction.

2) Too Much Multitasking May Be Making You Stupid: Since you use different parts of the brain for focus and concentration than when multitasking you don't learn as much, and while you may not become more stupid, you are cheating yourself out an opportunity to become smarter. Research shows that the more you use the different parts of your brain to do heavy mental lifting - deep thinking, analysis, study - the more new neural connections grow and the smarter you become. If you're satisfied with just strengthening the part of your brain that only has to do with learning repetitive tasks, then you've got a great future working a job like on an assembly line.

3) Multitasking Can Interfere with Your Social and Professional Relationships: How many times have you been in a meeting and someone is IM'ing on their Blackberry or talking on a cell phone? How about having lunch with a friend and having them text message throughout lunch? Too much multitasking can create a "crisis" atmosphere where everything seems like it has to be done now and no one learns how to wait their turn anymore. We my be creating a generation of young people who can't deal with anything other than instant gratification, and as anyone who's been in a serious relationship knows, the one thing that a successful relationship requires is patience.

4) Develop Your Focus, Concentration and Critical Thinking Skills: If you are always multitasking you don't learn how to develop your ability to focus, concentrate deeply and think critically on a problem, which is where all creativity springs from. What if Einstein had been an addictive IM'er? What would the Sistine Chapel look like today if Michaelangelo had been heavily into text messaging?

®2007 All rights reserved. Gregory A. Ketchum, Ph.D.

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