Multitasking and Spiritual Practices

June 21st, 2013

Man Versus Machine

Computers are extremely efficient multitaskers. They can complete multiple instructions simultaneously without impairing speed or quality. But human brains cannot. Despite our perception that we are being more productive by working on several different projects at once, recent studies have confirmed we are actually harming our productivity, along with our relationships and creativity.

The term multitasking, defined as the performance of multiple tasks at one time, originated in the 1960’s to describe computer operations, but it is today frequently worn as a badge of honor by people claiming they are high-capacity, high-performance workers. However, this activity is more accurately described as task-switching since our brains are built to focus only on one task at a time. Rather than multitasking, we are really just moving from one task to another quickly.

In today’s technology-rich world, multitaskers are easily spotted. They are the ones texting on the phone while checking e-mails on the laptop, watching television, and listening to their children talk about their day. But multitasking predates BlackBerries and iPads. Ever seen someone putting on makeup while driving? Or remember Aunt Bertha, who couldn’t have a conversation or watch television without knitting? Our tendency to multitask reaches back thousands of years. Our ancestors needed to scan their environment constantly for predators and dangers to stay safe while gathering food. For us, it’s just a bad habit.

Research is showing that multitaskers, whether adults or students, are hurting their ability to think. Dr. Clifford Nass, a psychology professor at Stanford University, says people who multitask all the time are chronically distracted and can’t filter out irrelevant information. He’s found they activate much larger parts of the brain than what is necessary and have lost the ability to focus.

Researchers at the University of Utah found that people who rate themselves as above-average multitaskers also test high for traits such as risk-taking and impulsivity. This means they are more likely to engage in activities such as driving while using a phone. Yet, these same subjects were the ones who performed the worst on a test that gauged their multitasking abilities. One of the authors of the study, Dr. David Strayer, summarizes it this way: “The people who multitask the most tend to be impulsive, sensation-seeking, overconfident of their multitasking abilities, and they tend to be less capable of multitasking.” Statistics prove driving while distracted is dangerous. In 2011, 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Examples of distractions include texting, using a cell phone, eating, adjusting the radio, and grooming.

The Realities of Human Productivity

Every time we switch tasks, there is a productivity cost, as it takes time for our brains to readjust to the original task. Business analyst Jonathan B. Spira estimates that extreme multitasking costs the US economy $650 billion a year in lost productivity. One workplace study found that of the 300 American workers surveyed, 70 percent receive more than 21 e-mails a day. More than half of those workers check their e-mail more than 11 times a day, and one third check it every time they receive an incoming message notification. Another study found that most workers get only 11 continuous minutes of work between interruptions (e-mails, phone calls, or instant messages) and that it takes an average of 25 minutes to return to the original task. While many think their productivity has stayed the same or improved with new technology, it turns out most employees are only able to focus on one task for about 15 minutes out of every hour.

For students, it’s worse. In research that observed college students in their normal study environments, it was found they couldn’t resist texting or using social media for even short periods of time. They were told to work on an important school assignment for 15 minutes, but even though they knew they were being watched, their “on-task” behavior started to decline after two minutes. Overall, only 65 percent of the time was used on schoolwork. Annie Murphy Paul, writer for the education news outlet The Hechinger Report, concludes that student learning is “far spottier and shallower than if the work had their full attention. They understand and remember less, and they have great difficulty transferring their learning to new contexts.”

But not everyone agrees that multitasking is always bad. Some employers list multitasking as a preferred skill and look for employees who are good at using technology for multiple tasks. These employees can fulfill more than one staff position, reducing the number of workers a company has to pay. Also, a recent research study found that multitasking does not always result in poor outcomes. For example, experienced golfers putt better when distracted than when they are focused on performance. Researchers think this is because they are using strategies based on memory and well-practiced routines.

Hang Up and Parent

There is still much debate over whether technological tools and social media applications encourage or hinder relationship-building, but mounting evidence is showing that distracted parenting is a serious problem. Emergency room physicians suspect the recent increase in injuries to children is related to parents watching their phones when they should be watching their kids. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nonfatal injuries to children rose 12 percent between 2007 and 2010. During that same time period, the number of Americans who owned a smartphone grew from 9 million to 63 million. Child-injury experts hope to collect more accurate data on the issue to see if there is truly a connection. But that might be hard to do since most parents won’t admit they were indeed tweeting when their child fell off the swing set.

Child development experts are also concerned about how parental multitasking is affecting the emotional, social, and language skills of children. Dr. Sherry Turkle, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Initiative on Technology and Self, found that children and young adults are frustrated by having to compete for attention. “Over and over, kids raised the same three examples of feeling hurt and not wanting to show it when their mom or dad would be on their devices instead of paying attention to them: at meals, during pickup after either school or an extracurricular activity, and during sports events,” she says. Blogger and mother Meredith Sinclair admits she had no idea how much her addiction to e-mail and social media sites was bothering her children until she established a ban between 4:00 and 8:00 p.m. Her children responded with glee, she says. Researchers also want to study whether the constant use of technological devices is interfering with parent-child communications. Are parents now speaking fewer words to their kids than they were several decades ago? Talking and reading out loud are the building blocks for language development and creativity in children. An informal study conducted by Dr. Dana Suskind at the University of Chicago found that it appears parents speak fewer words when phones and other devices are turned on. In one example, a parent was shocked to discover she spoke 1,454 words an hour to her daughter when her devices were on and 3,088 when they were off.

Attention and Creativity

In his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, Nicholas Carr claims that multitasking feeds short-term memory at the expense of long-term memory, which is where connections and creativity take place. In a YouTube video that illustrates his theory, Carr explains that constant distractions crowd out the calmer, more contemplative modes of thinking. Moving information from the short-term to the long-term memory is called consolidation, and it’s how we truly expand learning. In the video, Carr says attention is the key to improving long-term memory; “and if we lose control of our attention, or are constantly dividing our attention, then we really don’t enjoy that consolidation process.”

In an article on multitasking in The New Atlantis, journalist Christine Rosen argues, “People who have achieved great things often credit for their success a finely honed skill for paying attention.” For example, geniuses such as Picasso and Mozart are said to have attributed silent time to their creative breakthroughs. And in Scripture, we find more than 15 accounts of Jesus retreating to be alone and pray.

Centuries before the term multitasking came into being, Lord Chesterfield of England recognized the connections between attention, parenting, and creativity when in the 1740’s he wrote to his son, “This steady and undissipated attention to one object, is a sure mark of a superior genius; as hurry, bustle, and agitation, are the never-failing symptoms of a weak and frivolous mind.”

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups. FaithLink motivates Christians to consider their personal views on important contemporary issues, and it also encourages them to act on their beliefs.

comments powered by Disqus