Multitasking impairs our ability to think

Multitasking impairs our ability to think

Dennis Sparks

Apr 22

A study by a team of researchers at Stanford came out a couple of months ago. The investigators wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked? The answer, they discovered—and this is by no means what they expected—is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there. In other words, people do not multitask effectively….

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think…. — from “Solitude and Leadership,” a lecture given by William Deresiewicz cited in Farnam Street

Sustained thinking is hard work, which is why many of us avoid it through multitasking and other distractions.

I recently heard a professor at a distinguished university, and a Nobel Prize winner, say that he did not allow students to use digital devices in his classes, citing as reasons a West Point study and decades of experience.

A few years back I was invited to speak to a group of about 100 educators. Waiting for my turn, I sat in the back listening to the person before me. All around the room I saw laptops and other devices open to dozens of different screens. It was quickly evident that my job was not only to offer something of value, but to compete with the rest of the virtual universe for participants’ moment-to-moment attention. I promised myself I would not put myself in that situation again, a luxury that many people don’t have.

If I were in charge of the world I would also extend the professor’s prohibition of digital devices to meetings with the possible exception of participants using them exclusively for note taking and calendar scheduling.

While there would undoubtedly be many objections to all of the above, the problem in some settings, like the professor’s classroom, are so severe that if group consensus cannot be achieved it would be appropriate from my perspective for leaders to make “edge decisions” in the interest of deeper thought and conversation.

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