The Downfall of Multitasking

Stanford’s always active science labs have received much attention over the summer. Radiologists at the Stanford School of Medicine performed a CT scan on a 2,500-year-old mummy. And then there was the bioengineering professor who sequenced his own DNA for less than $50,000. But a recent study by three professors at Stanford that concluded that multitaskers are bad at multitasking has gained by far the most attention.

Every major national newspaper has reported on the study over the past week. The San Jose Mercury News, the New York Times, and the USA Today all went hog wild with the story with references to every possible scenario of multitasking. The Mercury News referenced multitasking internet users, while the New York Times had even more fun with the story of a New York writer who can only eat one food at a time:

“Usually mashed potatoes first, and then maybe a vegetable,” he said. “It drove my mother crazy. She kept threatening to send me to etiquette school if I didn’t straighten out. I was scared to death till I turned 18 and realized going to etiquette school wouldn’t be such a bad thing.”

The solution to our multitasking issues?
But do any of these extrapolations actually make sense in the context of the study itself?

Most likely not. The researchers themselves conceded that the study has limitations. The Stanford professors only looked at a small pool of people (under 200), and the delineations between multitaskers and non-multitaskers were arbitrary and based solely on self-descriptions. The tests themselves also didn’t seem to mirror real life multitasking in the least. As the Mercury News reported, the tests dealt with “computerized colored shapes, alphabetical sequences and other tests that set out to prove memorization, sorting and organizational skills.”

So some colored shapes are enough to indicate that I can’t listen to music and write emails at the same time? I’m unconvinced. And others are, too. The food-sorting writer mentioned before had his doubts, as the New York Times reports:

Mr. Leleux frets that the Stanford study may have been done “by a bitter unitasker like me who wants to validate his own existence.”

In fact, even the team of researchers conclude that much more work remains to be done in diagnosing the problem and actually sorting out the causality. Stanford Professor Clifford Nass told the USA Today:

The next step is to figure out whether it is the multitasking that makes you less able to focus, or whether those who are less able to focus are more likely to be chronic multitaskers.

So far now, this chronic multitasker is going to keep listening to music, responding to friends’ text messages, scanning the Drudge Report, and watching YouTube videos while he finishes this post.

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