How many devices do you have in front of you right now? If I were to guess, I would say at least two. Personally, as I write this post, I have three: a computer, an iPad, and a smartphone. Second question, are you multitasking with the devices- perhaps, reading this article while simultaneously watching the television? Your work setting may be similar.
There has been much debate as to whether this idea of multi-tasking is productive as opposed to focusing on single tasked items. In this post, we’ll take a look at both arguments and decide how and why individuals may choose one method over another.
Multitasking and Retaining Information
If one were to ask a person who works primarily in some area of the communications field or in a corporate business setting, I would suggest that many would tell you that they do best when they are multitasking. As I look around my office, I often overhear my coworkers talking about staffing multiple concurrently while also hearing the gentle laughter from the television monitor as The Ellen DeGeneres Show plays in the background.
There are some studies that suggest that multitasking- or at least the “idea” of multitasking makes people more productive.
Take for instance a series of research studies from an article titled “The Illusion of Multitasking and Its Positive Effect on Performance” by Shalena Srna, Rom Y. Schrift, and Gal Zauberman.
A series of studies were conducted where participants were split into two different groups with varying demographics ranging from 18 years of age to 64. All participants were given the same tasks. One group would be told the task involved multitasking while the other was framed as a single task.
The results seemed to suggest that the groups who were told the task involved multitasking performed slightly better than the groups that were not. Srna, Schrift, Zauberman (2017)
This study would suggest that people of varying age ranges feel more productive when they believe themselves to be multitasking.
Single-tasking and Deep Thinking
On the other side these technological devices, and even the task of answering e-mail, is a detriment to the ability to focus on a task and gain deep understanding.
Cal Newport presents an argument from novelist Neal Stephenson. Stephenson does not even provide an e-mail address to clients or fans on his website, because even answering email is distracting.
Newport quotes a passage from an essay Stephenson wrote called “Why I Am A Bad Correspondent” that says,
“The productivity equation is a non-linear one, in other words. This accounts for why I am a bad correspondent and why I very rarely accept speaking engagements. If I organize my life in such a way that I get lots of long, consecutive, uninterrupted time-chunks, I can write novels. But as those chunks get separated and fragmented, my productivity as a novelist drops spectacularly.”Newport (2016)
This passage suggests that productivity drops when multitasking and not focusing deeply on one singular task.
How Are Newer Generations Learning?
In recent year, it seems impractical to ask younger generations to disconnect from technology completely for a long period of time. As technology reliance continuously grows, younger generations are focusing on multiple tasks at one time with many different sources of technology. But is this really multitasking, or just lack of focus?
According to Daniel T. Willingham’s article titled, “Have Technology and Multitasking Rewired How Students Learn?” he investigates how students’ brains have changed with the increase of technology. Willingham states,
“Survey data indicates that younger people do multitask quite often; over half of high school students report that they multitask “most of the time,” and about 25 percent report watching television or chatting with friends while they do their homework. Young people report multitasking for more hours per day than older people, and laboratory tests show that younger people are better at multitasking than older people.”Willingham (2010)
He goes on to suggest that younger generations have better “working-memory capacity” than older generations. However, that does not necessarily mean that they perform better. He suggests that college students actually perform worse when multitasking (with the exception of perhaps listening to music while performing a task) and that not all students have large working-memory capacity. Willingham (2010)
Instead he encourages teachers to avoid letting students multitask, but also work with new technology as it presents itself.
It seems that the best course of action is to figure out how to work with different technologies while still creating an ability to learn and focus. This does not only apply to younger generations, but also millennials like myself, and older generations in the working world.
Newport, C. (2016). Deep Work (1st ed., p. 46). New York, NY: Grand Central Publishing.
Srna, S., Schrift, R. Y., & Zauberman, G. (2017). The Illusion of Multitasking and Its Positive Effect on Performance. Retrieved from
Willingham, D. T. (2010, Summer). Have Technology and Multitasking Rewired How Students Learn? American Educator. Retrieved June 13, 2020, from https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ889151