You Aren’t as Good At Multi-tasking as You Think

Does the scenario in the photo look familiar? You’re at a conference and while a talk or discussion is underway people are checking their social media feeds on their digital devices?

Audience members checking their devices during a panel discussion at the Hilton Hotel Kyiv in April, 2019.

Audience members checking their devices during a panel discussion at the Hilton Hotel Kyiv in April, 2019.

I am seeing this more and more as people are unable to focus, lured by the pull of their devices. It is digital crack working its evil magic at full power! 

 “In an ever-more saturated media environment, media multitasking—a person's consumption of more than one item or stream of content at the same time—is becoming an increasingly prevalent phenomenon, especially among the young,” says a study by Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass, and Anthony D. Wagner.

Pre-teenagers and young adults aren’t able to focus for more than five minutes before becoming distracted, says Dr. Larry Rosen, a research psychologist at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

When I supervised a small team of 20-somethings for Europe’s largest security body, I’d often encourage my colleagues to put away their devices during meetings, especially at headquarters. There’s also the issue of meeting etiquette: I know my audience isn’t giving me their full attention if they are constantly glancing at their screens. But my colleagues would counter with the argument that there was no way their heavy workload could be completed without multitasking.

But experts in the field and several studies indicate that people grossly over-estimate their ability to multi-task, and that it compromises productivity. One frequently quoted study by Nass shows that the heaviest multitaskers were the worst but thought they were the best.

There’s also a growing body of research showing that just the mere presence of your smartphone - even if it is turned screen down or powered off - reduces your cognitive capacity (aka brain power). Think about that the next time you are on a first date!

Rosen says that when people check-out of whatever they’re doing to check on their devices, it isn’t just the actual time spent on the device. He says the brain’s arousal level starts to go up as much as 12 seconds before the actual switch is made. Add that to the time spent on “entertainment screens” (i.e. Facebook and Instagram) then a great portion of the day is spent in distraction mode.

 “Why do we do it? It’s more interesting, fun and stimulating. Try uni-tasking and you will get bored very quickly,” says Rosen. 

Indeed, while strolling through campus with Rosen after one of his popular lectures at CSU Dominguez Hills,  I commented about how his students had many active screens open in front of them while struggling to listen to him talk about - the dangers of multitasking! “I know,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.

OK, there’s a lot to miss if you’re off your device for more than 60 seconds!

OK, there’s a lot to miss if you’re off your device for more than 60 seconds!

Emerging evidence suggests young people living in an “always online” environment are spending more time looking at the screen. By Rosen’s estimates, the typical young adult unlocks their device about 50-70 times-a-day. If they check their phone every 15 minutes, they’re clocking between 220 to 262 minutes daily - or 3.6 to 4.3 hours-a-day. “A big reason is the availability of more social media - especially Instagram and Snapchat.”

(For the record, on a recent working Monday while on the road, I clocked four hours of screen time and picked up my devices 30 times).

Seems the members of Seattle City Council have a hard time staying off of their devices…. (Credit: Peter Mongillo/Twitter)

Seems the members of Seattle City Council have a hard time staying off of their devices…. (Credit: Peter Mongillo/Twitter)

Not only are we switching tasks at a dizzying pace, we are also switching content (i.e. going from online chat to checking a Facebook feed) more frequently. Leo Yeykelis, who writes about the intersection of psychology and technology, cites research showing that people switch between content on average every 19 seconds. “Though more recent research suggests this may even be a conservative estimate,” he adds.

Even TV viewing isn’t experienced as a lone task any longer - rather as a fragmented experience. “What used to be a continuous thirty-minute TV experience may now be an individual’s unique thread of content that mixes a TV show episode with email, Facebook, news articles, messaging with friends, and even other videos,” writes Yeykelis.

So the next time you are in a meeting or at a conference - especially one which you’ve travelled many hours to get to or paid a substantial ticket fee - think twice before reaching for your device. Your brain - and the individual speaking in front of you - may be that much more grateful for your undivided attention!