We women are proud of our ability to multitask, juggling lots of things simultaneously to slay our daily to-do-list dragons. If we live with partners of the opposite sex, many of us can admit to boasting about our superior multitasking superpowers (guilty!).
Well, in the age of smartphones and their internet-enabled cousins, it’s time to amend that brag. In an NPR interview, Clifford Nass, former researcher and professor of communication at Stanford University and author of “The Man Who Lied to His Laptop” says, “It turns out that for non-media tasks, women are better than men in multitasking. But, for media-related tasks, they’re similar.”
Unfortunately, by ‘similar’ he meant similarly bad. It turns out that media multitasking decreases our productivity.
Yup, our smartphones are making us less smart. WGBH’s Innovation Hub host Kara Miller says the revelation that multitasking is counter-productive became one of her biggest personal take-aways from the hundreds of shows she’s taped, interviewing some of the most creative, smartest people on the planet.
Why Media Multitasking Differs
A quick qualifier: Media multitasking is a bit of a misnomer. What we are actually doing when we pause midway through reading a news story online to scroll through social channels to tap out a text, tweet or email is called rapid task switching. This sequence of activities asks our brain to switch between unrelated stimuli, and our brain does not like that.
Multiple studies show that tech-driven task switching makes it difficult to tune out distractions and can cause mental blocks that slow us down. Some research suggests that a person’s productivity drops as much as 40 percent.
But, good luck persuading people to curtail their media-based rapid task switching, especially young adults who grew up using smartphones.
“The top 25 percent of Stanford students are using four or more media at one time whenever they’re using media,” says Nass. “So when they’re writing a paper, they’re also Facebooking, listening to music, texting.”
Nass explained that our brains are designed to integrate multiple stimuli at once, as long as the stimuli support a single task.
“The problem is not that we’re writing a report of Abraham Lincoln and read words of and see photos of Abraham Lincoln,” he says. “The problem is we’re doing a report on Abraham Lincoln and tweeting about last night and watching a YouTube video about cats playing the piano, etc.”
The American Psychological Association found that when people try to perform more than one task at a time, they actually do worse at both tasks. Because it takes longer to switch back and forth between each activity, the work takes longer to complete — an average of 25 minutes to resume a task after being interrupted. Those who were rated as frequent or heavy media multitaskers — and thereby thought they were able to switch among tasks with greater efficiency — actually performed the worst on tests.
Think You Can Refocus Your Brain?
Ready to be more productive? Gulp. Take the plunge, try these tactics and see what happens.
- Limit the number of things you juggle at any given time to no more than two tasks.
- Use the 20-minute rule: Devote attention to one task for at least 20 minutes before switching tasks.
- Group together similar categories of tasks or projects to maintain mental focus.
- Only read and respond to emails during uninterrupted, pre-scheduled blocks of time.
- Shut off all unnecessary phone and desktop notifications.