Multi-tasking impairs performance

Cover article in this week’s New Scientist is on multi-tasking. It cites research rounded up in a paper with the snappy title “Capacity limits of information processing in the brain” from volume 9 of the very respected journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Last year they had another piece about the effect of interruptions during work, which I commented on here.  This latest piece reinforces my belief that multi-tasking is not as great as its cracked up to be – and provides more hard evidence…

To quote the article:

“…people who think they are multitasking are probably just underperforming in all – or at best, all but one – of their parallel pursuits. Practice might improve your performance, but you will never be as good as when focussing on one task at a time.”

The are quotes from a number of researchers in this area, showing that with practice performance at multi-tasking does improve – for people of all ages – but even researchers who are more ‘optimistic’ about multi-tasking believe that attempting to multitask writing with instant messaging will result in underperformance.

Natural multitasking is often seen as indicative of ‘digital natives’, but this lends support to arguments that students might simply not be doing as well by failing to concentrate on individual activities. While acknowledging that performance at multitasking drops with age, the fact that people of all ages can be trained to significantly improve their multitasking performance chips away at the idea of multitasking being a meaningful difference between ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’.

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