Students, Stop Multi-Tasking: You're Only Fooling Yourselves

Research is now confirming what a lot of us have known for a long time: flitting back and forth between a lecture and MSN or tweets or Facebook or e-mail or YouTube or whatever is not smart. You may think that you’re being so very productive and you might leave the lecture hall buzzing with a sense of exertion, but you’ve only wasted a lot of energy switching among two or three activities that you can do much better if you take them one at a time.

Sometimes people congratulate themselves that they’re working “in parallel” rather than “serially,” as if they have two brains/processors going, but no one does have two brains. Instead, our sense of “productivity” is simply the sense of expending energy from jumping back and forth among activities, energy that is better used actually doing something.

We’re maxing out our RAM, so to speak, trying to take lecture notes while staving off boredom by playing a computer game or checking sports scores. Using up all one’s concentration in this way, however, means that one can only receive the lecture and, at best, record it faithfully. What one has no mental capacity to do in such situations is to go beyond mere receptivity to engage in two other crucial activities: criticism and creation.

You simply cannot critique what you’re hearing if all you’re doing it “getting it down,” and you certainly can’t innovate, can’t consider alternatives, if you’re maxed out. There has to be mental space for the mind to wander, in fact, but not in just any silly, dilatory direction: in intelligent directions of “What if…” and “On the other hand…” and “That reminds me of…” and the like.

So quite apart from the discourtesy of your screen flashing back and forth among various windows, doubtless distracting students behind or beside you, you’ll simply do better if you focus your attention on the task at hand.

Don’t kid yourselves, my friends: working harder trying to do three tasks at once is not working smarter. Quite the contrary.