Back in August 2009, I blogged that Stanford University had published a study that the AP called “surprising”: people who multitask are more easily distracted and less able to ignore irrelevant information than people who do less multitasking. Chronic digital multitaskers were found to be not as good at switching between tasks, compared with people who weren’t chronic multitaskers. In other words, multitaskers cannot concentrate on a single task and do it well; instead, they do a lot of things not very well. They get LESS done than single-taskers.
“The huge finding is, the more media people use the worse they are at using any media. We were totally shocked,” Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford’s communications department, said in the AP article.
As I said at the time:
Huh? Shocked? Really? Are Stanford researchers THAT out of touch and naive?
I wasn’t AT ALL shocked. It was confirmation of something I’ve known for a long, long time: multi-tasking muddles minds.
In this article in Time from November 2010, Turning Your Phone Off as a Technological Gesture of Affection, the Stanford study is explored further, with this observation:
Multitaskers overestimated their abilities. So, for instance, when your brother insists he’s listening to your story, even as he texts his girlfriend, he really does believe that he’s hearing you. But chances are, he got only every other word.
It’s the same in the workplace: you are not listening to that phone conference while you are checking your email. YA colleague calls on the phone to discuss something or deliver information and he or she knows you are not really listening, as you are trying to IM or fill out a form at the same time – meaning he or she will have to repeat it all later when you realize you don’t know something you should. At a meeting, people ask questions that are fully answered in the two page document they claimed to have scanned on the plane.
At conferences, it’s impossible to strike up conversations with people around you — something essential to make a conference valuable — as they all have their heads buried in their lap tops or PDAs, talking to people elsewhere instead of the people right there next to them, eager to connect.
So why not embrace true digital efficiency and give one slice of attention to each task, even just a few minutes, so that you do all tasks well? It’s amazing how much more work you get done when you single focus! Close your laptop in meetings and workshops. Put the phone or PDA away. Listen, look, make eye contact. Do it just a few times a day, and you will be amazed how much more information you discover and retain, how many MORE connections you make!
I now have a rule during my presentations: if you are going to have your lap top open, you have to be in the back rows; the front and middle rows are reserved for participants; my workshops are interactive, and I’m tired of asking a question to a room full of people or having people break into groups to work on a quesiton and having those at their lap tops look up and say, “Huh? What? Huh?”, or updating their Facebook screens while people behind them watch their screens instead of me. I put a lot of work into my presentations; if you aren’t there to participate, I’d actually rather you not attend at all.
The ability to concentrate on a single task, to get it done properly and completely, or to concentrate on a single content source, reading or listening thoroughly to the information provided, is rapidly becoming a lost skill, and the workplace, public discourse and even every day community life is suffering for it. We’re not becoming more efficient and productive: we’re becoming more distracted, less inclined to complete tasks on time, less likely to do a quality job, and less likely to really, substantially connect with new people. It also affects our quality of life: there are generations who seem to not know how to become engrossed in a movie, how to sit and people-watch, how to just be in the moment, and that means they aren’t really satisfied with anything.
But it’s more than just being ignored while I’m putting my heart and soul into a workshop or watcing co-workers founder in meetings: People are crashing their cars while texting. And even worse: people are making up their minds about world events, government policies, candidates running for office and proposed activities by various organizations based on snippets they’ve glanced at online or on comments heard by a pundit on the radio or TV as they are doing two or three other things at the same time. Debates have become easy for me to win these days because I actually still READ and have more than sound bites to refer to.
My tag line on Yahoo for a few years now has been “Read More Books.” The world would be a better place if more people did, not only because knowledge is a wonderful, empowering, enlightening thing, but also because it would teach people the power of “single-tasking“, or the power of concentration, of focus.
Take just 10 minutes every other hour to read something, in silence, related to your work — memos from colleagues, abstracts from journal articles, an executive summary — without doing anything else. Don’t answer your phone while a colleague is in your office. Turn away from your computer when you are on the phone. Sit and listen intently to a presenter for even just the first 10 minutes, without doing anything else. Introduce yourself to two people sitting near you at a workshop. Never ever write emails while trying to listen to a phone call, a presenter or a colleague. These are little things. And if you do them, you will LOVE the results!