Multitasking Interferes with Learning?

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Summary: Though multitasking is commonplace now due to the number of Web-enabled devices and cell phones, it can decrease our ability to learn and think efficiently.

Key Take Aways:

- Distractions such as multitasking generally are probably unhelpful for productivity and thinking.

- Being engaged directly with one's work and other activities is linked to happiness and distraction is associated with the opposite.

Research conducted at Stanford University found heavy multi-taskers had reduced abilities to identity relevant vs. irrelevant information, switch between tasks and stay mentally organized. A UC-Davis study concluded learning is reduced when distractions are allowed at the same time. In other words, learning is enhanced when there is a singular focus on the subject matter or activities.

While the research conclusions are not too surprising, we live in the Information Age with its countless text messages, social media sites, news stories, Web sites, video games  and online videos. There is so much information available to us on multiple platforms you might also call it the age of distraction.

A UK study of 1,100 British workers employed at the same company found multitasking with electronic media decreased IQ more than a bad night of sleep or smoking marijuana. The comparison to marijuana smokers have have been used because prior research has indicated abnormal brain blood flows result from marijuana use and can cause problems with thinking and memory. Workplace distractions were found by a separate survey to cost organizations billions of dollars each year in lost productivity. A different study found office workers get distracted roughly every three minutes.

The lure of media multitasking, such as watching TV at the same time as using a computer and having a cell phone nearby for texting or talking, is that it is stimulating, so we feel pleasure or some emotional satisfaction. A study conducted at Ohio State University found though this is probably true, we still suffer poorer mental performance when we are multitasking.

The dopamine boost we receive when we jump from one task to the next is usually brief, however, and we may wind up being so distracted throughout the course of a day that we don't get much done, but are fatigued. Then we may become upset with the disappointing results.

How does all this information relate to happiness though? It has been theorized that when we are happy it is probably related to being engaged directly with an activity with a single focus like having a conversation with someone you know well and not being interrupted by cell phone calls or working quietly without disruptions. It could be taking a walk in park for 30 minutes and paying attention to that experience, instead of letting the mind wander.

Harvard graduate student Matt Killingsworth did a TED talk on how staying in the moment is a way of encouraging a happy mindset. He created a free app called the Happiness Tracker which documents your daily activities and moods to try and gather data about the relationship between engagement and happiness.

While some of this information may seem a little 'soft' to some readers, where distraction really gets us in trouble is when we drive distracted. According to the U.S. federal government, in 2011 over 3,300 people died in our nation due to distracted driving accidents. In the same year, 387,000 were injured in the same kind of vehicle accidents.

Paying attention when we drive, work, learn and unwind is a more constructive way of using our minds.

Image Credit: Public Domain,

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