Multi-Tasking Mania Creates Credible Chaos

The George Washington University Counseling Center is currently offering a series of “academic success” workshops, the names of which provide a good summation of a college student’s life and life challenges.

The workshops are called “Get Organized,” “Learn in Less Time,” “Prevent Procrastination,” “Master Your Stress” and “Save Your Semester.”

Probably every university student has sometime wanted to learn faster or procrastinate less. And most students need a semester “saved” sometime during their four-plus years in college.

One way students cram the most productivity into the least amount of time is by multi-tasking. Whether they like to admit it or not, most people multi-task in some form: talking on a cell phone while driving, surfing the Internet while writing a research paper, or hammering on a keyboard while talking with a co-worker.

Once an innovative way to increase efficiency, multi tasking has now become an everyday, all-day, activity.

While multi-tasking seems inherently efficient, some experts claim that heeding its siren song does not necessarily increase productivity?and others say it is downright unhealthy.

If these authorities are correct, students’ best bet for improving productivity may not be to speed up, but to slow down.

Aside from the obvious threats of gross multi tasking?like driving while eating and talking on the phone and reading and adjusting the stereo?a recent article published by the American Psychological Association suggests that multi-tasking can be less productive than “doing one thing and doing it well.”

In August, researchers Joshua Rubinstein, David Meyer and Jeffrey Evans, published “Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching,” a work that takes multi tasking to task.

In the study, researchers analyzed the “time costs” associated with switching between tasks. According to the APA, “The measurements revealed that for all types of tasks, subjects lost time when they had to switch from one task to another.” This time loss increased with more complex and more unfamiliar tasks.

The slowdowns occur in two forms that the study calls “goal shifting” and “rule activation.” Porter Anderson of CNN news describes goal shifting as “I want to do this now instead of that,” and says rule activation might be verbalized as “I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this.”

Both of these switches create a time lapse, which can eventually add up to a considerable amount of time, the study says.

The most common applications for the study’s findings are in industry or business, where workers repeat activities thousands of times over the course of a day or year. But Meyer says the study’s data also has everyday application.

Speaking of talking on the phone while driving, Meyer told CNN: “Even if you have a cell phone that’s not held by hand and can be dialed by voice, you still have a really big conflict, because when you’re driving, you need to be looking at various different places, you need to be reading signs, you need to be talking to yourself about those in order to?make decisions.”

While the time for switching tasks ranges from just tenths of a second to a second, that time, says Meyer, “can mean the difference between life or death for a driver using a cell phone.”

For students, George Washington University’s counseling center explains a how multi-tasking can affect students’ studying. The center’s website says, “Multi window, multi-task activity is the norm for today’s students. Email, games and Web site searches are routinely managed simultaneously with writing papers or completing research assignments.” The center warns, however, that this activity “breaks concentration and consumes time rapidly,” and advises students to minimize the number of Internet windows and to “stick to” one task at a time.

The center also says that multi-tasking may worsen students’ time-management skills and attention to detail.

Redford Williams, a behavioral scientist at Duke University, told USA Today’s Maria Puente that multi-tasking is a health risk. Since multi-tasking makes people feel they must always be doing something productive, they feel increased stress. “If people have too much to do and no say in how things get done?they get depressed, anxious, angry,” Williams said. “All these stress factors have been shown to put people at high risk for heart disease and cancer.”

Many experts concur that technology?and how manufacturers peddle that technology?is the driving force behind multi-tasking mania.

For instance, Puente reports that Cadillac offers cars equipped with voice-activated computers that allow drivers to surf the Internet while on the road.

Ford reportedly has a “concept” minivan that comes equipped with?among other things?a washer, dryer, a microwave and a vacuum.

Joanne Ciulla, author of The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work, bemoans technological advances that have made people busier?but not necessarily happier. “Technology didn’t give us more time, it just upped the expectations of what we could do in the same time,” Ciulla said.

Similarly, Michelle Weil, co author of TechnoStress, said in USA Today, “People love technology, but no one needs all these tools, and not all these tools all the time.”

Despite minivan microwaves, driving Web surfers and all the other implausible things that come with multi-tasking, the practice is likely here to stay.

Ultimately, individuals?including college students?will have to make the best use of multi-tasking by deciding when it helps, when it hurts, and when it validates this curt assessment from Maria Puente: “Multi-tasking is multi-obnoxious.”

Mike welcomes feedback at: [email protected] or send letters to the editor to: [email protected].