So it gives one pause that Stanford University, that great think tank of innovation and launchpad of so many successful startups says that not only is multitasking not good for you, you’re not even good at it.
The study entitled Cognitive control in media multitaskers, authored by Eyal Ophir, M.S., Clifford Nass, Ph.D., and Anthony D. Wagner, Ph.D. says our intuition (not to mention our pride) has got it all very, very wrong.
Mythical Abilities of the Multitasker
The study focuses on three key abilities:
- Memory management
- Task switching
It turns out that while many people have problems with one or more of these abilities, chronic multitaskers are bad at all three and they are worse at each of them than the average person.
One would assume a habitual multitasker must be excellent at filtering out noise from their multiple streams of input and at focusing on relevant information. Not so. It turns out that high multitaskers are suckers for “red and shiny”. If it is distracting, they run to it. If it is irrelevant, they jump on it. In fact, the more irrelevant information they see, the more they’re attracted to it. They are moths to the flame.
Surely then the high multitasker must be methodical and organized about memory so that they can store and retrieve information from this flood of data that they continually draw. Alas, that is also not so. It appears that they are much worse at compartmentalizing information. Additionally, they are slower to recall information. Once again, the non-multitasker has them beat.
Finally, the committed multitasker is slower at switching from one task to another and has a harder time making the transition. This may be completely counterintuitive but, well, science.
Do We At Least Have Our Priorities Straight?
Another observation the study made was that the multitasker may not realize the priorities they are applying to their multiple tasks. For instance, a favorite multitasking scenario is talking on the cell phone while driving. You would think that driving would be the primary task while the phone call would be the distraction.
But, in fact, the phone call becomes primary with the driving as the distraction. This gives you a hint why multitasking causes problems.
Startup Objectives Vs. Multitasking Objectives
How can this be? It seems to fly in the face of what we would like to believe. One key may be in the objectives of our intrepid multitasker. If you want to explore rather than exploit, multitasking, even poorly, will feel more satisfying. Exploration, after all, is just about gathering lots of information.
Exploitation, however, is about concentrating information to put it to some practical use. In the startup realm, exploitation is far more important on a day by day basis.
But I’m Special (So Very, Very Special)
If you are thinking that maybe you belong to a special group to which these results don’t apply, think again. The study found no significant deviation in results based on agreeableness, conscientiousness, creativity, extraversion, intelligence, neuroticism, openness, nor the big one, gender. That’s right, men and women are equally bad at multitasking.
Furthermore, being smart doesn’t help and neither does being well adjusted. We are running out of excuses.
But maybe it’s a generational thing, you hypothesize?
Nope. While there is an enormous desire among Gen Yers, teenagers and 20-somethings to attempt to multitask, they do no better than the more resistant baby boomers. Motivation does not improve results, nor does peer pressure. Yes, the younger crowd may work their smartphone better. But when it comes to actual results, technological superiority doesn’t make up for the fact that our brains operate basically the same whether we are 25 or 55.
Join Multitaskers Anonymous
So what is a recovering multitasker to do?
Plan for monotasking. Reward yourself for completion of tasks rather than counting how many plates you have spinning.
Close down the input sources: don’t have Facebook AND Twitter AND LinkedIn AND twelve Web pages open at once. Don’t surf the Web and watch television and listen to the radio at the same time. Give tasks your full attention in short but concentrated bursts. The less you multitask, the more you will accomplish. And accomplishment can become habit forming.
Have you figured out how to kick the multitasking habit?
Multitasking  Photo via Shutterstock