I have contended for some time that in one important way, we are victims of our own technological prowess: We are so flooded with information from e-mail, BlackBerrys or iPhones, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, et al., and we are so pressed to deal with it all, that those productivity tools have seriously eroded productivity.
Admittedly, I have based that on my own experience—a growing inability to concentrate on what's in front of me due to all those other matters demanding attention. Turning off the devices for a while doesn't seem to help, as all those things rattle around in my head just the same.
I had been inclined to chalk some of this up to an aging and less agile mind. Like many others, I envied those around me who appeared to effortlessly juggle an array of demands. How could multitaskers do it?
Well, it turns out they can't. "Multitaskers are lousy at multitasking," says Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford University in a video on the school's Web site. Nass, along with his colleagues Eval Ophir and Anthony Wagner, conducted a study that aimed to identify how multitaskers accomplish what they do. "Many researchers have guessed that people who appear to multitask must have superb control over what they think about and what they pay attention to," Stanford said in a press release describing the study, which was published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The results strongly suggest otherwise.
Ophir, the study's lead author, said in the statement, "We kept looking for what they're better at, and we didn't find it."
For the study, the researchers put a group of 100 Stanford students through a series of three tests. What the tests showed was that high multitaskers were more easily distracted by irrelevant information, had poorer memories, and had more difficulty switching from one task to another than those who do not do much multitasking. "The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can't keep things separate in their minds," Ophir said.
The researchers are now investigating whether persistent multitaskers are born with an inability to concentrate or acquire it by taking on too much. But these were Stanford students—a highly select and accomplished group of young men and women.
The study suggests that it pays to concentrate on the task at hand and put aside distractions, but most of us already know that. The problem is that given the tidal wave of stuff flowing our way, clearing the mind of detritus gets harder each day. I need to think about how to do that—let me add it to my task list.