I’ve talked about attention and multitasking before. But I’ve just been reading about a new study at Stanford University [PDF, 157Kb] about media multitasking that sheds further light on multitasking abilities. Researchers found that our response to how we multi-task can help or hinder just as much as the multitasking itself.
“It seems that chronic media-multitaskers are more susceptible to distractions. In contrast, people who do not usually engage in media-multitasking showed a greater ability to focus on important information. According to the researchers, this reflects two fundamentally different strategies of information processing. Those who engage in media-multitasking more frequently are ‘breadth-biased,’ preferring to explore any available information rather than restrict themselves. As Lin Lin at the University of North Texas puts it in a review of the article, they develop a habit of treating all information equally. On the other extreme are those who avoid breadth in favour of information that is relevant to an immediate goal.
“So what does this mean for you, reading this blog while checking your stocks and playing solitaire? Are you in trouble? Should you curb your media congestion? Not necessarily. Breadth-bias may still serve a purpose in our media-heavy society…In our fast-paced and technologically advancing society, it may be that having a single goal on which to focus our efforts is a luxury. We may often be better served by a control strategy that is cued by the demands of our surroundings. Look around yourself – do you see notes and to-do lists? Piles of objects meant to remind you about tasks and goals? These sorts of reminders are a great way to take advantage of bottom-up attentional control, and this type of control might in fact be more influential in our lives than we realize.”
[Scientific American: Portrait of a Multitasking Mind, Kenner & Poldrack]
So if you’re into multitasking, but it seems to cause you problems further down the line, it may be worth refocusing rather than reducing the number of tasks you’re working on.