“You Cannot Do More Than One Thing At A Time” – Science Comfirms The Advantage Of “Single-Tasking”

This is from a recent interview by Terry Gross on Fresh Air.  (Listen, and read transcript, here).  I did not hear it live, and my wife “encouraged” me to listen to it.  (I wonder why?!)

The interview is with NY Times technology journalist Matt Richtel, who writes the series Your Brain on Computers, and his latest column is Digital Devices Deprive Brain of Needed Downtime (some of these ideas are discussed in this interview).

One key problem – multitasking.  His blunt conclusion: It’s pretty clear to scientists you cannot do more than one thing at a time.

Here is the key excerpt from the interview:

GROSS:
Well, that’s very ironic because we think when we’re multi-tasking that we’re really doing great, we’re getting two things done for the price of one or three things done in the amount of time it should take to do one thing. But what are scientists learning about how efficiently we’re doing any of those two or three things when we do them at the same time?

Mr. RICHTEL:
Yeah, this is another place where I don’t have to equivocate. It’s pretty clear to scientists you cannot do more than one thing at a time (emphasis added). This research goes back years, and it is having like its new day in the sun, its new applicability.

Your brain effectively processes one stream of information at a time. I’ve heard this very basic test from a Stanford scientist that has stuck with me. It’s a kind of cocktail party test that researchers have known about for years, where if you sit at a cocktail party and you’re listening to the person in front of you, you can’t really listen to the person behind you.

In fact, you may pick up very basic things like your name being said, if someone says it behind you, but beyond that, you’re not processing both those streams of information.

So apply that to the person sitting at a desk, fiddling with a device or trying to read an IM while surfing a website or talking on the phone to a boss or colleague or subordinate. What you are basically doing is switching rapidly among those tasks, not doing them at the same time.

And all the research says when you switch among those tasks, you cut your effectiveness at each one of them by a significant degree.

Listen to the full interview here.  It is worth your full, undivided, undistracted attention.

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