The Myth of Multitasking

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multi-taskingI’m old enough to remember the days when computers ran one application at a time. You opened Lotus 1-2-3, worked on a file, closed it and moved to the next task. It was a simpler time without distractions. Compare that with what you’re doing today. Are you reading this while working on a PHP application, fiddling with a graphic in PhotoShop, opening 57 browser tabs, listening to the latest SitePoint podcast, answering the phone, monitoring your twitter stream, and keeping an eye on email notifications? Technology has allowed us to multitask and achieve more at the same time.

Or has it?

According to a recent study at Stanford University, media multitaskers have more limited attention spans and cannot switch jobs as easily as those who prefer to work on one task at a time.

A series of tests were given to a group of 100 students who had been identified as single and multi-taskers. The single-taskers consistently out-performed the multi-taskers every time. Researcher Anthony Wagner stated:

When multitaskers are in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal. That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.

The scientists had assumed the human brain could process more than one stream of information at a time. They had originally theorized that multitaskers had a special innate gift that allowed them to handle multiple tasks better than others. Eyal Ophir, the study’s lead author, added:

We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it.

They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing. The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.

Researcher Professor Clifford Nass concluded:

Multitaskers are suckers for irrelevancy. Everything distracts them.

Could it be that doing less actually allows you to accomplish more? Can you multi-task effectively?

Photo credit: Georgia Wiggs

Craig BucklerCraig Buckler
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Craig is a freelance UK web consultant who built his first page for IE2.0 in 1995. Since that time he's been advocating standards, accessibility, and best-practice HTML5 techniques. He's created enterprise specifications, websites and online applications for companies and organisations including the UK Parliament, the European Parliament, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, Microsoft, and more. He's written more than 1,000 articles for SitePoint and you can find him @craigbuckler.

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