Productivity suffers when students engage in multitasking

By Amy Demoreuille

Despite popular belief, multitasking reduces productivity, with clear implications for workers and college students alike, according to new studies and research reports.

Multitasking occurs "when people are simultaneously performing multiple tasks or rapidly switching between multiple tasks so that it seems that they are performing them at the same time," Shamsi T. Iqbal (cq), a student at the University of Illinois (cq) at Urbana-Champaign (cq) and researcher on multitasking, said. Human beings can naturally multitask if there are no conflicts between the visual, auditory and motor channels, she said.

Multitasking increases performance and efficiency but becomes a problem when people's actions exceed the limitations of their processing resources, she said. "In those cases," she said, "it is postulated that processing resources from one task is usurped from another, potentially resulting in decreased performance for the second task or both."

David E. Meyer (cq), a cognitive scientist and director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory (cq) at the University of Michigan (cq), has been quoted as saying: "Multitasking is going to slow you down, increasing the chances of mistakes. Disruptions and interruptions are a bad deal from the standpoint of our ability to process information."

Multitasking is "illusory at best," Jonathan B. Spira (cq), chief analyst and CEO at Basex (cq), a business-research firm, said. "The brain doesn't multitask. It is capable of one task at a time."


Many people would be wise to curb their multitasking behavior when working in an office, studying or driving a car, neuroscientists, psychologists and management professors say in a recent New York Times (cq) article.

Multitasking is a problem at the University of Richmond (cq) because people think they're better multitaskers than they are, President William E. Cooper (cq), a psychologist, said last week. Multitasking gives people the false impression that they're working effectively and they can't have breakthroughs in their work without full concentration, he said.

Out of 17 Richmond (cq) women interviewed, 14 often multitask while they work and 13 think it negatively affects their work. Two women think that the quality of their work is just as good when they're multitasking, it just takes them longer. The rest agree that they are much more productive and produce better quality work when not multitasking, and when multitasking, work is often "rushed, of poor quality, incomplete and sloppy," sophomore Elizabeth Robinson (cq) said.

Rene Marois (cq), a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory (cq) at Vanderbilt University (cq) said in the same New York Times (cq) article: "A core limitation is an inability to concentrate on two things at once.

We are under the impression that we have this brain that can do more than it often can."
Scott Allison (cq), a psychology professor at the University Richmond (cq) says: "We live in a society in which people have the illusion that they can do many things at the same time as well as they can do them separately. The truth is, work performance suffers when people multitask. Not only that, but multitasking can cause stress."


In 2005, Glenn Wilson (cq), Reader in Personality at the Institute of Psychiatry (cq), University of London (cq), gave an IQ test to a group of people who were to do nothing but take the test. A second group then took an IQ test while distracted by e-mails and telephones. The first group scored an average of 10 points higher and the second group scored an average of six points lower than a group in a similar study that had been tested after smoking marijuana.

Technology serves as a lubricant and keeps knowledge flowing, but it has increased the variety of ways someone can interrupt or be interrupted, according to a report by Spira (cq) and Joshua B. Feintuch (cq) from Basex (cq).

Everyday in the workplace, workers divert their attention to interruptions and other distractions that consume about 28 percent of a worker's day, or 2.1 hours including recovery time, based on surveys and interviews of workers by Basex (cq). American company workers waste about 28 billion hours a year and assuming a salary of $21/hour, the cost to business is $588 billion, according to a report by Basex (cq).

A recent study of Microsoft (cq) workers found that they took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages.

About 55 percent of workers respond to an e-mail shortly after it is received and only 30 percent answer when it's convenient, according to research by Basex (cq). Interruptions can be unimportant, urgent or both because many workers can't differentiate, Spira (cq) said. Degrees of interruption include personal importance, group importance and organizational importance, he said. Personal importance is how critical an issue is to an individual, group importance is how critical an issue is to a group, and organizational importance is how critical the issue is to the overall problem, he said.


Responding to interruptions is part of human nature, and the most difficult to resist are those that entertain us, he said. Total interruptions, dominant interruptions, distractions and background activities are the four main types of disruptions, he said. Total interruptions, such as an active phone conversation or a thought-intensive game, completely occupy the conscious mind and thwart any thought relevant to the original task, he said.

Dominant interruptions, such as walking outside or recreational web browsing, largely occupy the mind while the task at hand develops in the back of one's mind, he said.

Distractions, such as instant messaging, "do not stop one from consciously working on the original task but do draw attention away from it so it proceeds more slowly or less accurately," he said.

Background activities, such as listening to music, are less-obvious but divert some of one's attention away from the original task and slightly reduce speed and accuracy, he said.

Interruptions can also be passive or active, he said. Passive interruptions are triggered by technology or another person, while active interruptions are "initiated by the very person who chooses to be interrupted by them," he said.

About 94.5 percent of workers consider an interruption by a superior acceptable, 87.2 percent consider an interruption by a colleague acceptable, 90.8 consider an interruption by a subordinate acceptable and 62.4 of workers consider an interruption by a friend for a non-work or non-business related question acceptable, according to a recent survey by Basex (cq).


Multitasking shrinks brain capacity instead of enlarging it and people can't multitask and learn new things, Cooper (cq) said. The only way to learn things in depth and be original is to resist multitasking, he said.

Marois (cq) conducted a study with three other Vanderbilt (cq) researchers where they measured how much time is lost when a person tries to handle two tasks at once. They found that when participants were given two tasks at once, their response was delayed up to a second more than when they had to do each task separately. This one-second delay could be fatal while driving 60 mph, Marois (cq) said.

Out of the same 17 Richmond (cq) women interviewed, 15 said they talked on the phone while driving and only two said they talked only when necessary. Three of the women have had cell phone related close-calls and two have actually had serious consequences. Sophomore Colleen Muldoon (cq) leaned over to get her cell phone and almost hit a car, junior Katie Vaska (cq) stalled out while driving stick shift and talking on the phone, and junior Mahima Ratnaswami (cq) has drifted into another driver's lane during a phone conversation, they said.

Senior Catherine Estevez (cq) said once she reached over to get her cell phone when it fell on the floor, "blew right by a speed trap," and received a $200 speeding ticket, she said. Sophomore Jane Crifasi (cq) ran through a red light once while talking on her cell phone, but luckily there wasn't an accident, she said. Other women note that they do stupid things while driving but acknowledge the fact that they may not notice, they said.


Many believe that today's youth are the most adept multitaskers, but a study conducted at the Institute for the Future of the Mind (cq) at Oxford University (cq) found that a group of 18-to 21-year-olds and a group of 35-to 39-year-olds matched in speed and accuracy when given a list of images to translate into numbers using code, while they were interrupted by phone calls, instant messages or text-messages.

Some Richmond (cq) women have good strategies for focusing on their homework. "I try to give myself time limits for how long I'll work," Vaska (cq) said.

"I'll work for an hour and a half and then take a break or finish this subject and then do something else. I get a lot more done quicker that way and I tend to stay more focused when I am working."

Listening to music or multitasking a little can be used as "a jolt of caffeine" to get you started working but you should stop multitasking as soon as you start to seriously work, Cooper (cq) said. Multitasking on a basic level, such as walking to the dining hall while talking on your cell phone, is acceptable because one action is automatic while the other requires consciousness, he said.

People should manage the technology that surrounds them when working or driving, such as not listening to music with lyrics, checking e-mail once an hour at most, and not talking on the phone while driving even if using a headset, according to a recent New York Times (cq) article.

Some universities block internet access in certain courses and have other policies that will prevent multitasking, Cooper (cq) said. If multitasking becomes problematic at Richmond (cq), the university could address multitasking in orientation and offer a seminar, he said.


People don't know the consequences of multitasking and people can make them aware by discussing and writing about the problem, Spira (cq) said.

Brain scans, social networking algorithms and other new tools should help provide a deeper understanding of the brain's limits and potential and a new organization, the Institution for Innovation and Information Productivity (cq), has been created to sponsor such research, according to the same New York Times (cq) article.

Multitasking has existed since the beginning of time and as time progresses, there are more opportunities to multitask, Cooper (cq) said. People need to be careful how they use the technology available because multitasking is something that could literally affect the evolution of our species, he said.

Kelsey Blank, face-to-face interview
President Cooper, face-to-face interview
Jane Crifasi, e-mail interview (
Catherine Estevez, e-mail interview (
Jen Forde, face-to-face interview
Hayley Fowler, face-to-face interview
Jackie Gunderman, face-to-face interview
Ali Hoffman, e-mail interview (
Aurie Horn, e-mail interview (
Shamsi T. Iqbal, e-mail interview (
Alexandra Jenkins, face-to-face interview
Kathryn Joyce, e-mail interview (
Colleen Muldoon, e-mail interview (
Julia E. Nouss, e-mail interview (
Mahima Ratnaswami, face-to-face interview
Elizabeth Robinson, face-to-face interview
Allison Scott, e-mail interview (
Jonathan B. Spira, e-mail interview (
Caroline Stutts, face-to-face interview
Emily Tiernan, e-mail interview (
Katie Vaska, face-to-face interview
Lohr, Steve. "Slow Down, Brave Multitasker, And Don't Read This in Traffic." The
New York Times, 25 March 2007.


Spira, Jonathan B., Goldes David M. "Information Overload: We Have Met the Enemy and He is Us." Basex Report, March 2007.

Spira, Jonathan B., Fientuch, Joshua B. "The Cost of Not Paying Attention: How
Interruptions Impact Knowledge Worker Productivity" Basex Report, September 2005.

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