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Tuesday, 22 September 2009 11:37

Don't think and drive - you'll do both poorly

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Researchers at Stanford University have clearly demonstrated that those of us who claim to be able to multitask are actually less able to complete any of our assigned tasks than those of us who attempt tasks one-at-a-time.

Published in late August in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the paper "Cognitive control in media multitaskers" presents the results of a series experiments conducted on the relative cognitive abilities of self-proclaimed media 'multitaskers' and 'monotaskers.'

The multi-taskers were described in relatively clear language: "keeping up several e-mail and instant message conversations at once, text messaging while watching television and jumping from one website to another while plowing through homework assignments."

After putting around 100 volunteer students through a series of three tests, "We kept looking for what they're better at, and we didn't find it," said Eyal Ophir, the study's lead author and a researcher in Stanford's Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab.

"They're [multi-taskers] suckers for irrelevancy," said communication Professor Clifford Nass, one of the researchers.  "Everything distracts them."

The experiments were very simple, based on drawing students' attention to specific coloured rectangles and being asked to ignore others; or asking to separate odd from even numbers while other distracting elements were present.

"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."

Clearly this research can have wider application than the simple uptake of multiple media sources.  It clearly shows that no matter what tasks are to be done, approaching them one at a time will permit more to be accomplished and (probably) better completion of each of them.

The research also shows that attempting to do two things concurrently causes major detriment to both tasks.

The obvious real-world example is driving a car.  If all you are doing is driving, then you should be in full command of the vehicle; however add in a mobile phone conversation, a radio and a passenger; you'll find all tasks are seriously impaired.

"By doing less, you might accomplish more."


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David Heath

David Heath has had a long and varied career in the IT industry having worked as a Pre-sales Network Engineer (remember Novell NetWare?), General Manager of IT&T for the TV Shopping Network, as a Technical manager in the Biometrics industry, and as a Technical Trainer and Instructional Designer in the industrial control sector. In all aspects, security has been a driving focus. Throughout his career, David has sought to inform and educate people and has done that through his writings and in more formal educational environments.

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