Can We Really Multitask?

Each year in late December David Brooks gives out what he calls the Sydney Awards for the best magazine articles of the year. I always love this column. I think I am attracted to his recommendations in part because Brooks is attuned to the power of culture, as I try to be.

One award winner this year is William Deresiewicz’s “Solitude and Leadership.” The essay appears in The American Scholar and is adapted from a speech Deresiewicz gave to the plebe class at the Military Academy at West Point. Here was this group of highly focused young people — determined, hard working, goal-oriented, scheduled up — a group like most high achievers in our society, driven into frenetic lives trying to achieve important goals.

These are the future leaders for our military and eventually for our society, and Deresiewicz actually recommends for them solitude as part of their training. Yes, solitude. “Solitude is what you have the least of here,” Deresiewicz says, “especially as plebes. You don’t even have privacy, the opportunity simply to be physically alone, never mind solitude, the ability to be alone with your thoughts. And yet I submit to you that solitude is one of the most important necessities of true leadership.

I would like to return to this topic of solitude for leadership in a later blog post, but for the moment I want to lift out of Deresiewicz’s essay some comments about multitasking. He knows these students are multitaskers. And not just students, of course. We all seem to think we need to multitask, talking on the phone while doing email, texting while driving, skimming the newspaper while talking at the breakfast table. We think this is the way we have to live in our fast-paced world today, the only way to keep up, the only way to get ahead. We think we are more productive.

But Deresiewicz says this about multitasking:

A study by a team of researchers at Stanford came out a couple of months ago. The investigators wanted to figure out how today’s college students were able to multitask so much more effectively than adults. How do they manage to do it, the researchers asked? The answer, they discovered — and this is by no means what they expected — is that they don’t. The enhanced cognitive abilities the investigators expected to find, the mental faculties that enable people to multitask effectively, were simply not there. In other words, people do not multitask effectively. And here’s the really surprising finding: the more people multitask, the worse they are, not just at other mental abilities, but at multitasking itself.

Multitasking, in short, is not only not thinking, it impairs your ability to think. Thinking means concentrating on one thing long enough to develop an idea about it. Not learning other people’s ideas, or memorizing a body of information, however much those may sometimes be useful. Developing your own ideas. In short, thinking for yourself. You simply cannot do that in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube.

I’ve heard John Medina, the director of our Brain Center at SPU, say the same thing many times. The brain does not multitask. Get rid of that notion. You are actually less productive when you try.

I am convinced if we could learn this one lesson, and if we could actually teach this to our students, we would find ourselves more productive. We might find ourselves becoming more thoughtful. I think we’ve got to change the momentum on multitasking, stop talking about it as a virtue. We need to stop praising this practice among our young people.

We need to begin to encourage focus, sustained attention, thinking longer thoughts, reading longer texts. I think this is an important insight not only for education but for healthy living. Perhaps once again it should be part of training good leaders.