One task at a time

Despite all the hype about multitasking teens, it’s not good for students to do too many things at once, writes cognitive scientist Dan Willingham on Answer Sheet.

. . . college kids who report being chronic multitaskers are actually somewhat “worse” than their peers at some basic components of cognitive control (like switching attention).

If you care about what you’re doing, focus on it, Willingham advises.  Leaving a TV on as background noise is distracting. Background music can help or hurt, depending on the “type of music, type of task, type of person, or a combination of factors is still unknown.”

Young people are better at multitasking than older people, he writes, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for them.

If there’s anything I hate, it’s a TV babbling on with nobody watching. But then I’m one of those older people.

About Joanne


  1. SuperSub says:

    Whenever I have students who declare that they can’t do their homework without music on in the background or their computer on, I always make a comment about drug addiction.

  2. If, as Willingham does, you view the mind as a pipe into which content flows, one element at a time, through short-term memory and into long-term memory, then anything that is not on-task is noise, and dilutes the input, and hence the memory, of the content.

    Fortunately for today’s teens, Willingham is wrong, and the brain is ideally structures to accept multiple simultaneous inputs at the same time. Indeed, it is essential that it be able to do this, otherwise, we would not be able to walk and chew gum at the same time, much less make sense of our environment.

    As I write this comment, I am watching the morning news, chatting off and on with my wife, watching out for the cat on my desk, having a coffee, breathing, and listening to the clock chime 8:00 a.m. Yes, I might be able to do any one of these marginally better if it were the only thing I was doing. But that improvement would hardly make up for the loss of the other experiences, and would in time be the less for it.

  3. Stephen, Willingham knows far more than you ever will about cognitive science. You’ve already lost, and are now actively making yourself look like a fool. Just stop.

  4. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I’ve been one of those people who has hated the droning unwatched TV since I was 12. So I don’t think it’s just an older person thing.

    And Stephen… I suspect that only one of those tasks requires any sort of real thought: talking with your wife. Unless you’re the amazing Stephen, when you listen to the news you do what we all do: keep an ear out for something interesting, but otherwise let it more or less flow over you, to be gone in an hour, a day at most. (You’ll perk up if something catches your attention, of course, and start really listening.)

    But really, coffee drinking? Involuntary medulla activity? Hearing noises in your environment? Just because some neurons are firing somewhere in your body doesn’t make an activity a task in the sense people mean when they talk about multitasking.

  5. People used to call me scatterbrained until some kind soul inventer the term “multitasking”. I’m much better now.

  6. Speaking just for myself, I noticed years ago that when doing non-challenging tasks, playing background music was no problem. When I got to something really hard though (debugging a complicated program), having even a small part of my brain devoted to the music was sometimes enough to hold me back.

    For maximum thinking, it seems pretty obvious that thinking about only one thing would be best.

    “I’m tryin’ to think, but nothing is happening!” — Curly

  7. Richard Nieporent says:

    And Stephen… I suspect that only one of those tasks requires any sort of real thought: talking with your wife.

    Michael it appears that you haven’t learned one of the most important husband survival skills. All you have to do is remember the last 15 seconds of what you wife said. Then when you get the inevitable are you listening to me complaint you just repeat the last comment she made and that mollifies her for the moment. She still suspects that you were not listening to her but she can’t prove it.

  8. Homeschooling Granny says:

    Richard, and people wonder why the divorce rate is so high.

  9. I am sensitive to noise and I do not like the sound of TV.

    But just because I’m that way doesn’t mean having the TV on all the time is a bad thing.

    I suspect it’s just a habit.

    Because it’s not a habit of mine, it annoys me.

    For others, I imagine it serves as happy sounding white noise.

    White noise covers up distracting sounds making it have the same function as silence.

    When a child can’t do homework unless the TV is on, it’s usually because that form of white has become a habit. It’s not because the child wants to be entertained while doing a task that is boring.

    People aren’t multitasking when the TV is on. Though it can eat up time, watching TV is not a task.

  10. GoogleMaster says:

    I have a theory that most people are afraid to be alone with just the thoughts in their heads as stimulus. That’s got to be the reason that so many people spend so much time with a phone glued to their ears, chatting away about absolutely nothing at all, or have the TV during all waking hours. There was another posting somewhere about silence, and how today’s children have never known it. Well, none of us these days truly gets to experience silence. Sometimes I like to find a place or a time where there are no human voices to be heard, sit down, and let the small background noises wash over me as I identify them one at a time.

    Right now, a jet just flew over on its landing path to the local airport. The birds are doing their who-whoooo, who-whoooo that they do every morning starting about 6:30 — it wakes up my elderly dog, who begins to bark at them because her hearing is going. A different bird starts up with “weeee?dididididdidididi”. The computer fan whirs. The snoring of the other human in the house provides a baritone counterpoint to the gentle wheezing of the sleeping cat across the room. Underneath it all is the distant rumble of the morning commute on the freeway that is six blocks away in one of the largest cities in the US.

  11. An aviation insurance company is conducting a study on the characteristics of the safe pilot, and while it’s not done yet, some of the tentative results are suggestive in this regard. The pilots who are able to deal with potentially-dangerous situations effectively (in simulator studies) tended to TURN OFF the intercom to eliminate questions/chatter from passengers and to ask air traffic control to STAND BY (aviation-speak for “please be quiet.”) It appears they were acting to *reduce* their multitasking as much as possible and to control the information flow rather than letting it control them.

  12. I also cannot stand the TV being on unless I’m actively watching it. But, I also do not like the silence. So I generally have the radio on a news program. I find it very easy to tune out. Odd, but I do find silence to be a distraction also unless I’m involved in something highly engaging. I think it’s from a lifetime of living in homes where someone always has an electronic media on.