Multitasking is accepted as a given in our modern, technology driven society. Anyone with a teenager has shaken their heads at the sight of their child doing homework while listening to music at a loud volume through earplugs, and at the same time carrying on multiple texting conversations and surfing the internet. While a multi-core computer can perform multiple tasks simultaneously, people only have one brain. Since multitasking is becoming so prevalent, it has been thought that some people are especially good at multitasking, or that people get better at it over time as they get used to doing several things at the same time. Others thought that multitaskers were actually really good at switching rapidly from one task to another, so that it appeared that they were doing two or more things at once.

A study from Stanford University has shown that this is not true. Stanford professor of sociology Clifford Nass, along with associates Eyal Ophir and Anthony Wagner, decided to investigate what it was that gave multitaskers the ability to do what they do. The researchers assembled two groups of people. One group included people who regularly did lots of multitasking, while the other group did very little multitasking. The first experiment tested the subjects ability to ignore extraneous information and focus only on what was important. The research team was surprised to discover that while those that did not multitask had no problem successfully completing the exercise, the multitaskers were very distracted by extraneous information.

Next the researchers decided to test whether multitaskers were better at storing and organizing information. Once again the multitaskers failed miserably, while the control group did fine. The researchers were not going to give up that easily. They figured that if multitaskers were not good at filtering out extraneous information and could not organize their memories better, maybe they were better at switching between tasks faster than others but they found that the control group not used to multitasking outperformed the subjects with lots of multitasking experience.

Basically, the researchers found that when presented with many sources of information, the multitaskers found it difficult to filter out irrelevant information, focus in on certain information or keep things separate in their minds. This is in line with other research that has shown multitasking results in a strong negative impact on performing even simple tasks, slows people down, and results in more mistakes.

For those whose work involves tracking multiple sources of information and/or managing multiple systems and controls, it doesn’t take much to be overwhelmed to the point that critical information is missed or critical actions are neglected or done incorrectly. A conscious effort to reduce multitasking to the minimum necessary by meticulous planning, accomplishing everything possible before getting into a high-pressure situation, and blocking insignificant inputs can pay huge dividends in effectiveness, safety and peace of mind.

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