Multitasking stunts efficiency

Story and photo by Sara Nelson, NewsNetNebraska

These days, multitasking is a way of life. From chewing gum while walking down the street to texting while driving, multitasking is pervasive.

It may seem like a time-saver, but in reality multitasking often slows the completion of tasks.

“Multitasking is inefficient and can lead to bad health,” said David Meyer, director of the University of Michigan’s Brian, Cognition and Action Laboratory.

Meyer spoke on multitasking in the digital age and its impact on healthy living at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Beadle Center on Thursday. His speech was part of the Big Ten National Academy of Sciences Biotechnology/Life Sciences Seminar Series.

Meyer said multitasking can be both good and bad, depending on the tasks at hand.

Gadgets like smartphones have accelerated multitasking to new levels. But that also has increased risks. Meyer said text messaging while driving increases the chance of an accident by 2,300 percent.

Multitasking is not only risky on the road but also in the classroom.

Depending on the curriculum, Meyer said, all laptops and cellphones should be banned from classes because student multitasking on gadgets hinders learning.

“It’s interesting to learn about … the implications for education and executive control in children,” said Cathryn Cortesa, a graduate psychology student. “The understanding of multitasking and the understanding of the how brain works can lead to changes in the educational system and the way children learn and function.”

Not all multitasking is the same. Competitive tasks, such as texting while listening to a lecture, require the same mental and physical resources. Noncompetitive tasks, such as walking while talking, use different parts of the brain.

Skillful multitasking can be achieved with noncompetitive tasks much easier than with competitive tasks.

After the speech, a Creighton University professor said Meyer’s speech gave her a new outlook on her classes. “One thing I learned is to prohibit my students from using their laptops in the classroom,” said Maya Khanna, an assistant professor at Creighton, “because they certainly debate with me about it so I’m going to put my foot down.”

If students use laptops to work on tasks related to class, then a computer could enhance students’ learning, Meyer said. It all depends on the class and what tasks students are actually performing on computers.

The alternative to multitasking is focused attention. Meyer said it is important, especially for people who frequently multitask, to practice focusing all of their attention on one task at a time.

That struck a chord with at least one professor. “The thing that I thought was interesting was thinking about practicing focused attention – whether we should multitask or not,” said Jeff Woldstad, professor of biological systems engineering.

When it comes to competitive tasks, focusing on one task at a time leads to a faster, more efficient end result, Meyer said.

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