Myth of the College Multitasker

Everyone “thinks” they multitask, and that they are good at it too. But the truth is multitasking is not possible. Our brains are not wired to multitask.

“For the most part, we simply can’t focus on more than one thing at a time.  What we can do is shift our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed. Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re not,” says MIT professor of neuroscience Earl Miller. Studies show that we often overestimate this ability, and the consequences of this can be stress, a blunder, or maybe even a car crash.

You may think you are being productive when you are simultaneously working on a problem set, checking Facebook, responding to emails, and having a snack to top it off. Why do we, especially as students, feel that we need to multitask to get everything done? Moving back and forth between several tasks actually wastes productivity.

Experts estimate there is a 40% loss on average in productivity when multitasking because your attention is expended on the act of switching gears and you never fully get “in the zone” for either activity. On top of being less productive you are likely to have more errors especially with critical thinking problems. It also can hinder your brain’s ability to record short term memory and decrease the ability to think creatively.

If this does not convince you that multitasking is not the best decision, consider how multitasking affects happiness. Matt Killingsworth built an app called “Track Your Happiness” that had people answer several questions throughout their day regarding their happiness. He found that people were consistently happier when they were giving their full attention to the task at hand, even it was doing something unpleasant such as commuting.

Multitasking not only means trying to do many things at once, but it also means letting your mind wander from the task at hand by planning the future or dwelling on past events. If you are trying to jazz homework up and think that it would be more productive to allow yourself to also check your phone every time you get a text or notification, or let your mind wander to other unrelated things, you are actually hindering yourself and your homework. Taking breaks is important, but let those breaks be walking around or meditating for a minute every 20-30 minutes. Focusing on what you are doing with your full attention—being here now—is a huge factor in overall happiness.

This also applies during class. There is an insane epidemic of students on their cell phones during class. Whether it is responding to emails or checking social media, we all are missing out. We pay to go to this school and we want this education. We may not be enjoying a certain class at that moment, but avoiding focusing on your phone to focus on the teacher makes the class so much more enjoyable. It takes away the stress of trying to copy down notes in the middle of your “multitasking,” and it makes studying for the class’s exam a lot easier because you have actually been listening and learning.

My challenge for you is to not bring your phone at all into your next class—or at least turn it off and give it to a friend. If you put it in your backpack, it is going to be too easy to just turn it back on and go straight into multitasking mode again. Immerse yourself in the class and the moment. We are so fortunate to have this opportunity, why not enjoy it?

Tonight, while you are doing your homework or studying, try my second challenge: do not multitask. Give all your attention to what you are doing. Try it—even if just for a half an hour. I have a feeling that no matter how less-than-fun the homework is, you will be surprised with the quality of your work, your satisfaction, and overall happiness after that half hour.

If you could improve your productivity, creativity, memory and—most importantly—happiness, why wouldn’t you? Start uni-tasking now.




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