Sunday, August 30, 2009

Juggling, Multi-Tasking, and What Might Have Been

So I was listening to NPR a couple of days ago, and heard about an interesting study. The program was Science Friday, and the guest was reporting on new research about multi-tasking. At least I think that’s what was happening—I was sort of e-mailing my brother, filing my nails, and paying bills at the same time.

Stanford University professor Clifford Nass says that so-called "heavy multi-taskers" have trouble tuning out distractions and switching tasks, compared with those who multitask less. Well, I was sort of seeing that in myself recently anyway. Of course, I am hoping that this is a normal change that comes with a-, aa-, aging (that’s getting harder to say), and not a sign of the dreaded ‘Big A’ disease (only whisper it, now—Alzheimer’s.) Nass’ research makes it a little more universal, and a little less scary.

Actually, the research found that people who think they are good at multi-tasking are actually bad at it. I know this is hard to believe, but Dr. Nass says that not only are they not accomplishing what they think they are, but they are also losing cognitive function.

That got my attention for real. I put down the nail file, the checkbook (how 20th century of me anyway), and blew my brother off. Cognitive decline due to multi-tasking? Say it ain’t so, I’m begging you.

The research identified three areas of thinking ability: the ability to filter out the stuff you don’t need, the ability to manage your working memory (the mental filing cabinet) and the ability to switch from one task to another. Results: all three suffered for multi-taskers.

The host brought up the common practice of keeping multiple windows open on the computer, often while we’re texting or checking a BlackBerry. Apparently, we’re not fully doing anything well under those circumstances. The only thing, according to this Stanford study that didn’t detract from performance is listening to instrumental music. But even music that has lyrics leads to impairment in performance and thinking.

His bottom line was that we should all cut way back on multi-tasking, because it not only is ineffective, but it dramatically affects the way the brain operates. Yikes.

Wow. Maybe all this time I’ve been wasting doing several things at once has made a real difference in my life. Maybe I’ve done nothing well. Maybe I’ve been kidding myself. Maybe I coulda been a contendah… If only I’d kept the radio on. And paid attention.


  1. Stopping by through SITS. Great info! I think I should stick to trying to do one thing at a time too! If it would help me get more of my mind back, I'll try it!

  2. I always thought I was good at multi-tasking but yes, as I get older I find I'm much worse than I thought!

  3. OMG - that was YOU on the phone!?!

  4. Stopping by through SITS as well. Oh boy am I in trouble. I'm a hug multitasker, but isn't that a job requirement when you're mom?