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Multitasking makes us stupid?


I'm typing this while talking on my cell phone to one person and IMing another. Am I fooling myself that I can actually do these three things without a loss of quality? No... because I know I can't. I understand that what most of us call multitasking comes with a steep price tag.

But where I once believed that the myth of multitasking was about time (that doing four things simultaneously takes much longer than to do those same four things in sequence), scientists now know it's also about quality. And it gets worse... it's not just that the quality of those four things in parallel will suffer, it's that your ability to think and learn may suffer. Some researchers believe that all this constant, warpspeed, always-on multitasking is causing young people, especially, to become less able to follow any topic deeply. (more on that in another post)

Perhaps the biggest problem of all, though, is that the majority of people doing the most media multitasking have a big-ass blind spot on just how much they suck at it.

We believe we can e-mail and talk on the phone at the same time, with little or no degradation of either communication.

We believe we can do homework while watching a movie.

We believe we can surf the web while talking to our kids/spouse/lover/co-worker.

But we can't! (Not without a hit on every level--time, quality, and the ability to think deeply)

From the current cover story in Time magazine:

"Decades of research (not to mention common sense) indicate that the quality of one's output and depth of thought deteriorate as one attends to ever more tasks."

And according to Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke:

"Kids that are instant messaging while doing homework, playing games online and watching TV, I predict, aren't going to do well in the long run."

And from this study on young people and media use:

"Nearly one-third (30%) of young people say they either talk on the phone, instant message, watch TV, listen to music, or surf the Web for fun “most of the time” they’re doing homework."

The news is not all bad, of course -- from the Time article:

"The breadth of their knowledge and their ability to find answers has just burgeoned...but my impression is that their ability to write clear, focused and extended narratives has eroded somewhat."

And yes, we are all able to do some form of multitasking--some can even win an Olympic gold medal listening to an iPod. But the brain science helps explain this--we can do two things at once as long as one of them is something we've practiced so much that it doesn't require any sort of cognitive planning (there's a lot about this in the Time article).

The main problem today is that cognitive overload--provoked by so much media to attend to--is happening at a pace our poor little hunter/gatherer brains never evolved to deal with, and there's only so much that neural rewiring can do. And of course this is all very recent. When I was in high school, there were no iPods. There were no cell phones. No web, email, or IMing. No blackberrys. No PSP. (How did we ever survive? asks my daughter.) Multitasking for me in high school meant a ripping game of 1-bit Pong while simultaneously flirting with the geek from my history class.

Whenever I talk about the big myth of multitasking, people always come up to tell me how they themselves just "have the kind of brain that can do this." Riiiiiight. They don't. I don't. You don't. And maybe you'd realize it if you turn off your cell phone, disable IM, mute the little "ding" alarm that says you've got email, and just sit there for a few moments.

The big problem for most young people, it seems, is that they don't know how to "just sit there." They get the shakes after just a few minutes without media stimulation. But that is also a whole separate topic I'll get to very soon...

One of the most interesting things discussed in the Time article is that neuroscientists have established the specific area of the brain responsible for context switching. And unfortunately for some of us, it appears that this part of the brain performs less well as our brain ages. In a nutshell, the older we get, the less quickly and effectively we can multitask. But... most parents of teenagers already know that we have no frickin' idea how our kids manage to do what they do simultaneously. The key issue, though, is that while we now know they're better at it than we (the parents) are, they aren't half as good at it as they think they are.

And chances are, you aren't as good at it as you think you are. ; )

Posted by Kathy on March 22, 2006 | Permalink


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It absolutely comes at a cost. Sometimes the cost might be worth paying. However, the long-term cost I question. I can definitely see a loss of "deep" ability among kids who are young and massively context switching (I think this is part of the overdosed diagnosis of ADD/ADHD). Again, I wonder if it is true for us who have gone "deep" (read: degrees, experience) and have to multitask at our jobs. I certainly know that my brain does a reboot on the drive home. And I know that at certain times I wouldn't be able to focus on a programming task unless left fully alone, uninterrupted, for a few hours to complete.

Posted by: JohnO | Mar 22, 2006 5:25:29 PM

I second JohnO's comment about "rebooting." My evening commute is a 40 minute bike ride and I can feel my thoughts slowing down. By the time I get home I can spend all evening on a single event (e.g. dinner, reading a book, a little hacking) and get a lot "accomplished." Ironically, it doesn't feel like "work."

We were having a discussion at work today about how much business we accomplish when we're home sick.

Posted by: Paul | Mar 22, 2006 5:55:22 PM

While I agreed this to a large extent, I wish to add that "multitasking" do also help our mind stay alert.(Or I should say preventing our brain bored by doing the same task continually for too much time)

Switching task at your wish stimulate your brain and enhance your performance without disrupting your work. It's the interruption that do harm the performance.

To avoid spam, please change all the "e" in my email address to "a" to email me.

Posted by: Cheong | Mar 22, 2006 6:30:45 PM

I think a lot of this comes from the avalanche of information sources that we need to deal with these days.

You take your typical information worker, and they will have a laptop with Internet, Email, Instant messaging, a deskphone, a cell phone, RSS, etc.

So there are multiple channels active at once PLUS we need to do our job. not to mention real-live humans interrupting us too!

One of the things I recommend is to cut down the chatter and compartmentalise much of it into seperate tasks. I eschew IM all together and do not have email set up to alert me to new mail. I get to is when the time is right.

I have blogged some techniques around this here http://www.techpersonality.com/productivity/


Posted by: Simon | Mar 22, 2006 6:37:36 PM

I agree with Simon. My email is set to only check once an hour, and I often shut it down altogether. Another thing I do is, when I'm on the phone, get up and walk away from my desk. That way I don't get tempted by the computer and can focus on what the other person is saying.

(I realize this is may be impossible at an office. I work at home, so it's easy for me to escape the computer.)

Posted by: Derek Scruggs | Mar 22, 2006 7:04:02 PM

Nice article, though I did only skim the last half - I was eatng lunch and talking to my cat at the same time.

Posted by: tristan | Mar 22, 2006 7:22:57 PM

i realise that most of this discussion seems to be about office or academic environments, but it may go a long way to explaining why people who work in a retail environment for long periods of time (per week, or over a number of years) become scatterbrained or anally, almost OCD about being organised... and why you can't find the things you want in a supermarket.

Posted by: adam | Mar 22, 2006 7:31:43 PM

Whoa there, Nelly!
***Still Very very early days for multitasking and our ancient hunter/gatherer brains. And Tech/Gadget cheapness and proliferation only s/t highlight this. --Possible we are simply on the cusp of a new type of Evo.

Traditional education systems simply Do Not teach parallelism or alt. mind techs. ->If you talk to any psychologist, most will tell you that singularity of thought is a Total Myth.
Each of us, -Ok, except for the really stupid ones, is experiencing several, at least 3-5, different opinions on events in our lives at any given time.

I.e. The different members of the boardroom in our heads: The CEO, The worrier, The accountant, The Frat Boy, The Wise Man, etc.

It is very possible that multitasking and parallelism can become viable tools in time. But we're still in that "Totally Suck at it" bracket of the Learning Curve.

***Everything Is A Skill. Each skill should be learned, practiced and revered for its unique role and benefits in the composite landscape.

If I'm facing down a Bear with a rifle in Idaho, the last thing I want to do is multitask. However, if I'm a certain type of stock trader, a type of multitasking is very helpful.

*My guess is women would ult. be better at M/T due to the enhanced connectivity in the corpus callosium. Maybe they could M/T while Men focus. Hmm...

perhaps there is a way to track down the world's best m/t-ers and learn what/how they do (it).

Posted by: Will | Mar 23, 2006 12:07:10 AM

A very real example is this site. This site has very long posts compared to the regular blog and I've found it difficult to sit still and just read it. In the time it took me to read this post, I couldn't help but fire up a new browser tab and check my mail; it just felt too weird to have my hands do nothing for so long.

Here's the reason I fired up a new browser tab: http://www.43folders.com/2005/11/11/the-myth-of-multitasking/

Posted by: Jack | Mar 23, 2006 1:12:01 AM

"Multitasking for me in high school meant a ripping game of 1-bit Pong while simultaneously flirting with the geek from my history class."

Where were these women at my school?

Posted by: Dr Nic | Mar 23, 2006 4:23:43 AM

I talked about this Time Magazine article and I think they are wrong. The biggest problem is the researchers don't remember what it was like when they were teenagers. I do believe children have a better ability to multitask than adults, but I don't believe it makes them unable to "think deeply."


They just don't remember what it was like so long ago, but I do. I didn't have an iPod or PSP, but I multitasked all the time. I listened to the radio while I did my homework. I watched movies while I talked with my friends. I did word searches while riding the bus. There were always ways to disconnect from the world, even back in the "dark ages" before iPod.

Even more importantly, I believe all of us can disconnect whether those gadgets are available to us or not. I could slip into a fantasy world during class without the help of IM or earbuds.

Scientists need to spend a little more time reading their old journals from junior high school.

Posted by: Laura Moncur | Mar 23, 2006 6:29:16 AM

This makes sense. It's probably why, as I age a bit, I can't handle MySpace and I prefer longer blog posts.

I've recently come to terms with the fact that I'm never going to be a competent programmer. My teenage brain spent too much time twitching from subject to subject, and my adult brain can't cram enough stuff in. And I agree with JohnO: uninterrupted time is crucial. There just isn't enough.

Posted by: Drew Bell | Mar 23, 2006 6:47:25 AM

No scientific evidence, but I have observed when playing video games with my 9 year old granddaughter that she sees and processes a lot more on the screen than I do. She follows every player's progress, keeps track of information in little boxes on the side that give status, and even offers me advice about what to do while running her own game. The closest I can come to something like this in my own life is to compare it with driving a car and managing a turn signal, windshield wiper, changing the CD in the player, turning a corner, watching the pedestrians and cars, and talking to someone on my hands-free phone all at once with no difficulty. My conclusion is that it's a matter of what you've practiced and trained yourself to do.

Have you seen and commented yet on the film "What the Bleep Do We Know?" I'd really like to hear what you think about it.

Posted by: Virginia DeBolt | Mar 23, 2006 6:57:27 AM

Lately, I've been noticing that television programming or speakers or anything that happens in a linear way (i.e. unrolls over time) is becoming unbearably boring. Look at all the television shows--they're all edited to be flashy, to "pop", to jolt the viewer. But at the core of it, it's still the same amount of content--i.e. not much. I'd much rather be at the computer (or with a book) where I can skim, skip and go to something more interesting when what's in front of me becomes irrelevant to me. Or, an honest-to-goodness interaction with a person is much more interesting as well with give and take, etc.

Posted by: Nick | Mar 23, 2006 7:03:01 AM

It might not make me stupid, but it sure does make me sloppy! I am always amazed by my artist friends who claim that they can listen to audiobooks or music (any type ~ take your pick) while doing art. I can't do it. I forget what color I'm supposed to be using. I can't find my scissors. My paintbrush is hiding, even though it's right where it always has been.

Hey, maybe it *does* make me stupid after all!

Anyway, I thought that I was the only moron who couldn't divide up my brain that way while doing artwork. Hmmm...maybe I'm not the only one who can't, just the only one who will admit it!

Posted by: Cyndi L | Mar 23, 2006 7:30:07 AM

Thanks, Kathy, et al.:

We have some scientists at the University of Oregon working on these issues. See for example:

Edward Vogel, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and head of the Visual Working Memory and Attention Lab:

Anthony Hornof (Computer & Information Science) and Ulrich Mayr (Psychology):

Also, amen to Paul's comment about the bike commute as a way to make a transition; mine is much shorter but it still does a lot of good.

All the best,


Posted by: Andrew | Mar 23, 2006 9:18:30 AM

I miss being able to concentrate on one thing at a time. Being that focused and involved was fun.

That said, I realized the other day that our five year old never, ever sits still without any entertainment. He's used to the radio, TV, computer or a person at all times (if he's sitting still.) Then I realized I don't either. I always have a book, my iPod, my cell phone, something!, at all times.

It's a media entertainment world.

Posted by: Stormy Peters | Mar 23, 2006 10:16:02 AM

Sure there is a cost, but you are also able to perform more tasks, i think its more like industry and handcrafts, one thing is not necessarily of less or more quality than the other, but industry is always quicker and more cost efficient, some times you have to cut corners to achieve higher levels of performance, so multitasking is not really the dreaded thing everyone is talking about, like all things in life moderation is the key, some times multitasking if better some times it's not ^_^

Posted by: fiend | Mar 23, 2006 10:24:29 AM

it's a matter of chunking

one thing can easily broken into four and then you'd claim you were being forced to multitask against your will again...

Posted by: R K | Mar 23, 2006 12:15:50 PM

Despite the numerous reports and findings, it seems like users are going to continue to multi-task. So, does the question become how can we best aid the user's learning (and subsequently the use of our application/site) knowing that he or she may be IMing friends or talking on the cell phone etc. while at our site?

Posted by: jessi | Mar 23, 2006 1:19:56 PM

I spoke yesterday with the CEO of a small midwestern marketing consultancy. I asked him what skills he seeks in new talent for his firm. His answer (in the order he provided):
1. strong attention to detail
3. brilliant writer

Go figure!

Posted by: Curt | Mar 23, 2006 3:11:59 PM

If we may ask, do you try to discourage/forbid multitasking with the myspacing little Skyler? If so, what is her reaction? Do you see this having an effect on her?

Posted by: Richard Cook | Mar 23, 2006 3:28:17 PM

Come on now. When was the last time a young person thought about anything deeply. :)

Seriously though, my sons are 18 and 20 and they do several things simultaneously. Yes there is a price to pay, and yes the quality of any one thing is less than if they were doing that thing alone. Yet when they are interested in something they are both able to think about it very deeply and on multiple levels in ways that often surprise me.

And I agree that too many people feel that they actually do multitask and do it well. I've multitasked all my life, and I know that everything suffers a little when I do it, but I do have that false sense of security that everything is advancing a little bit. But sometimes I actually just stop and do one single thing.

And I don't have a BlackBerry, because sometimes I just want to do nothing.

Posted by: Larry Borsato | Mar 23, 2006 5:53:51 PM

Great comments everyone!

Virginia, you're so right -- she *does* see things that you don't, although that's not because your brain is older... it's because you grew up, as I did, without the kind of media/visual stimulation that she's had probably since birth. While the part of the brain that does context switching does perform less well as we age, the ability to process information visually that is switching very rapidly (think MTV and video games) is more about not being wired for it when we were younger. In other words, when her brain is the age yours is now, she'll probably still be able to process visual information differently from the the way you do now.

jessie: you ask the really important question!! I think that's exactly what we should be thinking about. We should start a conversation on that one...

Richard Cook: "If we may ask, do you try to discourage/forbid multitasking with the myspacing little Skyler? "

LOL! Hmmmm... the idea of putting "forbid" and "Skyler" in the same sentence is hilarious, but she's actually not as bad as most of her friends about multitasking. She is completely capable of having an extended conversation without anything else "playing." She does keep her phone ON, of course... just in case! But not for voice calls... actual "talking" on the phone has dropped to a bare minimum for her and her friends-- it's now a steady stream of text messaging all the way. I think I'm the only person she actually talks to on the phone the "old" way, you know, with my VOICE. She even gets updates from myspace on her cellphone.

Although I never forbid it, we killed our television when she was 12, so that's at least ONE media type she's not addicted to. Still, the idea of sitting in a quiet room reading (without her iPod) is inconceivable. But she's pretty happy to JUST be on myspace or JUST listening to music and doing something more mindless for her, like cooking.

She's about to take an intensive, semi-private foreign language course that requires a great deal of extended focus on nothing but listening and speaking Spanish. We'll see if she has withdrawals... I'll keep you posted ; )

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Mar 23, 2006 11:22:30 PM

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Posted by: Laurent | Mar 23, 2006 11:23:43 PM

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