Multitasking more difficult than you think

Time management is a tough job for college students. Scheduling and effective study habits are learned skills, and students that have not had a lot of practice juggling so many time-sensitive tasks may not have fully developed them yet. Students who work a lot of hours outside of school and students with children or other outside obligations can also struggle with time management.

The sheer amount of work that is required of a successful college student combined with easy access to technology leads a lot of us to favor a particular time management skill: multitasking.

Multitasking would be great, if we were capable of doing it. There is significant evidence from psychological studies that the brain is not truly capable of focusing on more than one involved task at once.

A person might consciously think that they are dividing their attention equally between two or more tasks, but they are actually rapidly switching their attention back and forth between the tasks, to the detriment of both. Sometimes this is sufficient to complete the work, reinforcing the belief that we are capable of truly multitasking, but productivity suffers overall.

Unfortunately, it appears that we think that we are better at multitasking than we actually are.

It’s not just a matter of some people being better at multitasking than others. Researchers at
Stanford University found that people who multitask heavily have more trouble distinguishing relevant information from irrelevant information than people who don’t multitask as much, and this difference carries over to times when a person is not multitasking.

That is, multitasking may actually start to affect how we process information in general. It is unclear, however, whether heavily multitasking actually causes this, or whether this is a trait that makes people more prone to multitask heavily.

We can apply the findings of the recent research about the negative effects of multitasking to how we structure our classrooms and study time. If we are aware of the things that can hurt our ability to focus and retain information, we can make an effort to reduce the amount of multitasking when we really need to focus on something important.

There is another reason that we need to be aware of multitasking being detrimental to information processing and focus, though. Until recently, I thought that any student who wanted to attend a class just to browse Facebook, check their email, take notes, and instant message at the same time was only potentially hurting one person: themselves.

I was wrong. Not only has a 2013 study reinforced that students who try to multitask more in class indeed receive a lower grade on exams, it has also shown that their multitasking negatively affects the exam scores of students who are in viewing range of their laptop screen.

Students who multitask in classrooms are not only distracting themselves, they are also distracting the students who are sitting around them in empirically demonstrable ways. These findings mean that using your computer or other electronic device in a class for functions other than taking notes is a serious discourtesy to your fellow classmates.

It is impossible to avoid multitasking completely. Sometimes our minds start to wander. Sometimes we’re just stubborn about our habits. As I write this, I’m listening to music with lyrics, something that I know that distracts me and decreases my reading comprehension.

In spite of this, we can do simple things to reduce distraction when we really need to focus, or when we are in a setting in which we need to be courteous to other people.

In class, put your phone away. Close your Internet browser. If your mind does wander, it will find its way back to the right place on your screen or, if you’re really serious about avoiding temptation, your piece of paper.


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