Learning Myth #6: So, You Think You Can Multitask?

It is common for people to describe themselves, or someone they know or work with, as an accomplished multitasker. And while it is certainly possible to walk down the street and chew gum at the same time, cognitive multitasking is not possible. Indeed, even the attempt to do so is detrimental, especially for learners.

Mutitasking

We know that we have a limited working memory capacity and research has shown that multitaskers:

  • Think they are more effective than they actually are
  • Make more mistakes than single-taskers
  • Have more difficulty retaining information
  • Take longer to complete two tasks when they multitask than if they had done the tasks sequentially

Really, what people are doing when they claim to be multitasking is “task switching.” They are rapidly switching between two or more tasks, almost always with negative effect.

Still think you can multitask? Want us to prove you can’t? OK, try this:

  1. Set the stopwatch on your phone.
  2. Start the clock.
  3. As quickly as you can, recite the letters A through J (Task 1).
  4. Then, when you get to J, as quickly as you can recite the numbers 1-10 (Task 2).
  5. Stop the clock and record your time.

If you are like most people, you completed these two tasks in around three seconds.

Now, let’s try multitasking:

  1. Set the stopwatch on your phone.
  2. Start the clock.
  3. As quickly as you can, intersperse Task 1 and Task 2 from above.
  4. Start with the letter A, then say the number 1.
  5. Then B and 2, C and 3, etc.
  6. Until you get to J and 10.
  7. Stop the clock and record your time.

Twice as long? Three times as long? More?

That time difference is the penalty you pay for multitasking.

 

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