The multi-tasking menace

Moronic? Perhaps, but from this Sunday it will certainly be illegal. Photo by Jane Dawber.
Moronic? Perhaps, but from this Sunday it will certainly be illegal. Photo by Jane Dawber.
Next week, it becomes illegal to drive and text or speak on a hand-held cellphone. Not before time, says Hayden Williams, as new research shows "multi-tasking" is highly overrated.

It is possible new research carried out at Stanton University could finally cause the multi-tasking myth to crash like an overburdened PC on dial-up internet.

This is great news for me, a confirmed uni-tasker.

Watching television while concurrently managing to cook semi-cremated toast is just about my limit when it comes to this now almost mandatory skill.

For anyone who didn't get the memo, multi-tasking - according to the August 2008 issue of New Zealand Business - usually means working on several projects simultaneously.

Today's technology enables us to stretch attention over several activities, and although this has already been shown to have detrimental consequences, the multi-tasking method continues to be celebrated by many throughout white-collar New Zealand.

But thanks to science slowly proving over the past few decades what always seemed common sense, multi-tasking advocates are becoming thinner on the ground.

Surely, the only people dense enough to continue defending this debilitating habit in the future will be die-hard media-swamped technophiles, along with irresponsible morons who persist in simultaneously driving, chatting on cellphones and "accidentally" causing fatal collisions.

Multi-tasking has an interesting history.

As a word, "multi-tasking" has been used since the 1960s, but it only took off in the 1980s, made popular by the growing importance of personal computers.

Computers are designed to multi-task, and multi-tasking as a term and concept is regularly used in software engineering.

If you Google "multi-tasking", the search engine will immediately retrieve more than three million hits - a good example of just how efficient personal computers can be.

Human beings are not designed the same way, however.

Throughout the 1980s and '90s, the corporate world especially aimed at ignoring this basic fact, retaining workers who coped well with multi-tasking because it was erroneously believed such employees could get more done and boost productivity.

As a result, multi-tasking became an unquestioned norm until the following decade, when psychologists emphatically stated multi-tasking had a negative effect on memory and concentration.

Executives were forced to take another look at how workers could best get things done.

Hewlett Packard commissioned a study in 2005 to explore the productivity of multi-tasking.

Surprised researchers discovered that functioning IQ can drop by as much as 10 points when a person multi-tasks.

Compare that with marijuana smokers whose functioning IQ will only drop by about four points.

The study also revealed that the drop in functioning IQ was more significant among male participants.

The issue of whether effective multi-tasking has anything to do with gender is, of course, nothing new either.

Speculation began at the beginning of the '90s when experiments with rats found females to be superior at using multiple cues to negotiate their way out of mazes, as opposed to male rats, who seemed only able to handle one thing at a time.

MRI scans performed on human females showed that the corpus collossum - the brain region responsible for synthesising and communicating information between left and right hemispheres - was wider in women, possibly enabling them to multi-task better.

Though many experts have dismissed the gender theory as nonsense, other tests have shown that women score higher than men when asked to listen to two things simultaneously, and that they also generally score better in tests of multi-tasking accuracy.

A 2005 study found three-quarters of women interviewed believed they were better at multi-tasking than men, and a third of the men agreed with their assumption.

However, Dr Liz Franz found in tests carried out at the University of Otago results are quite different.

"The difficulties of multi-tasking apply to both males and females, and our lab has tried hard to demonstrate sex differences on tasks . . .

"It seems that most, if not all, people demonstrate a slowing in performance and an increase in errors on almost all dual tasks in comparison to single-task control conditions."

One neuroscientist from the University College in London found that perceptions reflect popular beliefs rather than an actual gender difference.

Why, then, should the idea have become so popular? Perhaps women are so sick of being stereotyped by men - men who claim women are worse drivers, for example - that they have happily embraced multi-tasking as yet another thing they can do just as well as men, if not better.

Whatever the reason, it is unfortunate so many people expound the unproven idea that women are better multi-taskers - and that they thus advocate multi-tasking as a desirable skill.

While it is true some people are more practised at multi-tasking than others, research just published by Prof Clifford Nass, of Stanton University, shows effective multi-tasking "types" are nowhere near as productive as New Zealanders still seem to think.

In these latest trials, multi-taskers got everything confused.

The results were so conclusive that Prof Nass admitted in the New York Times that he is now losing sleep, worrying about the short- and long-term effects of multi-tasking: frequent mistakes, reckless and ill-informed decision making, corner-cutting and eventual burnout.

Dr Tamlin Conner, a lecturer at Otago's department of psychology and an expert in emotional wellbeing, prescribes "mindfulness" - a Buddhist concept - as a far more effective and satisfying approach than the superficial levels of attention caused by multi-tasking.

"Multi-tasking can impair wellbeing by thwarting a more mindful approach to engaging in our work, our lives and our family and friends," she says.

For Prof Nass, the heart of the problem is the widespread idea that multi-taskers possess superhuman ability.

Once again the evidence shows that they do not, and that they are in fact more error-prone, despite many holding positions of great responsibility.

Have we become so distracted and "non-mindful" as a society that we are no longer even heeding these warnings?

Hayden Williams lives in Dunedin.

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