Is Multitasking Making Us Lose Our Focus?

Are we unlearning how to focus through frequent multi-tasking?

Many of us pride ourselves as being great multitaskers.

This is the hallmark of busy, productive people after all.  The ability to engage in multiple tasks simultaneously, spread our attention across a large area, and be able to hit our marks.  It is considered a great skill and is typically praised in performance evaluations.

We have to multitask, how else are we going to finish all the stuff we need to do, right?

And technology allows us to do this brilliantly.

At home, we can read the news on our iPad, while watching our favorite show on TV, text, and check Facebook on our smartphone, all at the same time.

At work, we can sit down in a meeting, while checking and responding to emails, and texting with co-workers or friends, without missing a beat.

We can attend a conference (ostensibly to learn something new), write a report on our laptops, and participate on a conference call with people back in the office on our smartphones.  (This is so cool; I’ve done this one a few times.)

Aren’t we just so productive and efficient!

Or are we?

Research has shown that multitasking may actually be less effective and efficient than we think it is.

Clifford Nass, a Stanford University professor and a known authority on human-computer interactions, has been studying the impact of multitasking to the cognitive abilities of chronic multitaskers.  Specifically, his study focused on “media multitaskers” – those who receive and consume information from multiple sources simultaneously.  For example, we are talking about people who may be chatting with someone, while working on a paper or reading something, while listening to TV, while looking at the newspaper, while texting, etc.

The results of his study showed that chronic multitaskers tend to be more distracted and are less effective in filtering out irrelevant information from any given task, as compared to less frequent multitaskers.

The study suggests that frequent multitasking results in our brains becoming used to seeking multiple stimulus all the time, so that we become less able to focus on one thing for a prolonged period of time.

It appears that the habit of multitasking slowly degrades our cognitive abilities so that they become impaired over time.  So “practice” in this case doesn’t seem to make it perfect.

While multitasking might initially be appealing because it allows us to process multiple things simultaneously – thus making us feel more productive – it may actually result in us taking longer to complete required tasks over time.

I myself have observed my tendency to look and want for multiple stimulus simultaneously.  “Just watching TV” doesn’t seem to be sufficiently engaging. I need to be reading something at the same time.  While working on anything, the radio or the TV must be on.

Perhaps this is the result of frequent multitasking, or just indicative of a short attention span.  I will nonetheless, take heed and work towards doing one thing at a time.   Get back to focusing!

What about you?  Do you regularly multitask?  What do you think of the study?  Please share your comments in the section below.

A version of this article first appeared in Workxycodone.

Lou Blaser explores and writes about the pursuit of achievement and balance in our work + life.  Visit her at


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