The Perils of Multitasking

Technology makes multitasking so tempting and so common that it often feels necessary. As a result, the ability to multitask is enshrined as a modern-day superpower. After all, it seems obvious that doing more than one thing at once would boost productivity. However, research on multitasking suggests that it can actually work against us. As MIT neuroscientist Earl Miller explained in an interview with NPR, most people are actually quickly shifting their attention from one task to another when they think they are doing two or three or eight things at once. That constant change of focus makes our brain less functional, not more. We can all admit to ourselves, of course, that bouncing between Facebook and Reddit while trying to complete assignments is a productivity-killing distraction, but other effects of media multitasking are more insidious.

  • A 2009 Stanford demonstrated that heavy multitaskers are actually those most prone to distraction and least adept at quickly changing between tasks.
  • Multitasking creates emotional satisfaction and the illusion of productivity. A 2012 study from Ohio State University showed that multitasking was effective for meeting emotional needs, like being entertained or feeling productive, without meeting cognitive needs, like studying effectively or getting work done. Even worse, warm fuzzies from multitasking create a positive feedback loop that makes you more likely to multitask in future.
  • Students who browse the internet during class are less likely to remember class content-- even when they are searching for information relevant to the class.
  • Not only does multitasking make you less productive, it makes you more easily bored. A recent Time Inc. study found that Digital Natives transfer their attention from one form of media to another about once every minute (27 times per hour). As a result of all this mental ping-ponging from one platform to the next, they become less absorbed in media and less emotionally invested in what they’re watching or reading.

--Liz Soltan