Multitaskers easily distrac … oh, look, a pony!

To the growing stack of research showing that multitasking is inefficient, unproductive, even dangerous, we can now add one more study. Not only do multitaskers suffer lost time and poorer performance while in the act of constantly shifting attention, but, according to Stanford researchers, their overall ability to focus on one thing when required deteriorates.

Professor Clifford Nass, researcher Eyal Ophir and associate professor Anthony Wagner set out to see if heavy-duty media multitaskers had some cognitive edge that allowed them to juggle multiple input streams more effectively than others. “We kept looking for what they’re better at, and we didn’t find it,” said Ophir, the study’s lead author. The researchers tried comparing high and low multitaskers on a test that required paying attention to certain images and ignoring others. The multitaskers were terrible, constantly distracted by the irrelevant images. Then the groups were compared on a memory test involving looking for repeats in sequences of letters. “The low multitaskers did great,” Ophir said. “The high multitaskers were doing worse and worse the further they went along because they kept seeing more letters and had difficulty keeping them sorted in their brains.” Maybe the multitaskers’ gift was in rapid task switching. Nope; they came out worse on that test, too. “They couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing,” Ophir said. “The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.” The bottom line? “When they’re in situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory, they’re not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal,” said Wagner. “That failure to filter means they’re slowed down by that irrelevant information.”

Now the chicken-egg puzzle is whether chronic multitaskers are born with lesser powers of concentration or whether all that juggling is actually damaging their ability to settle their minds. The researchers intend to focus their undivided attention on that question next.


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  • I have to disagree with this. As a major multi-tasker in the advertising world, I often think that, hang on,

    what? yes, I can be there, let’s say 3:00 today? wait, I have something then, okay, I can move that to tomorrow morning. What do you mean we don’t have approval on that? did it go out already? who’s pm’ing that project? okay, I’m not point, so I don’t really know. Yes, order another pair of shoes for the shoot, but have her use her card, I don’t want to fill out a expense report. I just turned one in.

    As a major-multi-tasker-person I don’t see any issue with being able to handle multiple points of focus at one t

    oh, phones ringing, gotta answer that after I finish this sms text message.

  • Roger Strukhoff

    So now it’s been proven that so-called multi-taskers nothing more than pretentious stupid people.Now, how do we remove them from all the high-level corporate positions so they can’t hire people who are just like them anymore?

  • Curmudgeon2000

    AOL to what Roger said.

    What’s it going to take to get companies and manangers to
    structure their work tasks so that they conform to the way
    that humans are actually productive, rather than some fantasy
    about being “multi-tasking” supermen? Don’t forget that other
    euphemism — “fast-paced environment.” Yeah? Why don’t you
    hire some more workers then, instead of burning out the ones
    you have.

  • sd

    @curmudgeon, they don’t hire more workers because it means the CEO might have to settle for the solid-gold $35,000 umbrella stand instead of the platinum $78,000 umbrella stand. God forbid we reduce titans of industry to such levels of impoverishment!

    I’m *still* waiting for the revolution when we finally take all the people who are making their millions solely on *our* backs (yeah, you, too, Larry and Sergey) and tell them the pony ride is over.

    And FWIW Tom DeMarco was saying this 20+ years ago in “Peopleware” (Amazon link: ). When do we take the hints?

  • George Steele

    Sorry, but –

    My wife, who constantly berates me as a multitasker below her level of expertise (!), has the attention span of a gnat. Given the adage that the best defense is a good offense, I suspect that the proffered berating defends against her inability to focus on, well, just about anything.

    By her own admission, she’d ask questions in school that “would drive her teachers crazy”. What she was saying is that her questions were off-topic, the symptom of a mind struggling to follow a line of discourse. Constant interruption during conversation, impatience when others speak, “80% talking” seen as a right and a norm (for her), and an inability to focus on plans, resolutions, or compromises are the hallmarks of her failures in business and in her interpersonal life.

    This sounds like a screed on a disfunctional wife; it is, but by example that many married men can readily see, a screed on people who just don’t have what it takes to focus, drive to conclusion monomaniacally, and succeed. I’ve hired and fired many, and this is a disease.

    No, I’m not particularly happy with the family dynamics – but I’m more alarmed that we elevate people who can’t spell a ten-letter word without losing the thread to the level of seers, when in fact they are not only blind to what life demands, but also to what they themselves carry as an epic fail upon their own backs and the backs of those whose lives they disrupt.

    Multitasking is a silly, overblown, non-skill that has been falsely aggrandized as of high value by its adherents, to avoid having to apologize for a lack of directed energy among the incapable. I do not fear counter-arguments, since multitaskers will not have read to the end of my comments.

  • Sharon Berg

    I also disagree with the findings. How many people were in this study? Instead of playing mind games why didn’t they look at what people produce on the job? I was a multi-tasker before the term became popular. Throughout my career I have been praised for the quantity of my work in addition to the quality of my work. I’ve had employers who had to hire 2 people to replace me when I resigned. I’ve once turned out 156 presentation in 6 weeks and the other 2 employees turned out a dozen between them in the same time period. I’ve had coworkers who were organized but could only do one task at a time or they completely fell apart. They felt overloaded and fretted about the pressure. For some companies and some jobs, that linear process doesn’t work; you have to juggle more than one task at a time. I think the survey findings are invalid.