In the recent past, there were times when I would observe my daughter, then in high school, doing her homework. She’d be sprawled out on her bed in classic fashion, history book in her face. And the TV was on. And her laptop was on, positioned right next to her so she could check on whatever it was she was checking on. I’d look at this scene and be slightly disturbed, because I had my doubts as to the quality of schoolwork being done. “How can you,” I would gingerly inquire, “get any studying done with the TV and computer on?” “Oh, Dad,” she would sniff, “we’re really good at multi-tasking.” We being, I assumed, today’s modern techno kids. I would leave her to her routine, not particularly convinced by her declaration.
It’s looking as though my skepticism was not unfair.
The research is being done and the conclusions are being made. What scientists are finding out about multitaskers, not surprisingly, is that they’re doing all their tasks rather poorly. And when young folk put forth the proposition that there is some kind of species advancement going on here, some kind of evolutionary step taking place in the space of one or two generations that’s allowing our sons and daughters to multi-task on all these wonderful new gizmos much more efficiently and expertly than us old geezers would have ever thought possible, well … no. In fact, that particular notion is more than a tad bit laughable. Yet it’s one that many of us have heard delivered by our children, amazingly enough, WITH A STRAIGHT FACE!
But the basic truth about multitasking is that heavy multi-taskers are less competent at doing several things at once than light multitaskers, and light multi-taskers are less competent in doing several things at once than those who focus on one task at a time. Intuitively, this all makes sense. After all, if we really could multi-task half as wonderfully as we think we can, then there would be no problem with, say, texting while driving. Instead, we now have a bill in the legislature that proposes to outlaw this activity, a bill that will most certainly pass.
There is a certain snottiness about multi-tasking in the attitudes of many of those who consider themselves adepts. “Heavy multi-taskers,” said one Stanford researcher, “are often extremely confident in their abilities. But there’s evidence that those people are actually worse at multi-tasking than most people.”
Which takes us back to Lord Chesterfield, who wrote the following to his son in 1740: “There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not enough time in the year if you will do two things at a time.” Imagine that. An old fogy from 271 years ago, gettin’ in some solid disses upside the heads of the current legions of multi-taskers.