Multitasking, revisited

In my December 2 post I wondered about the appropriate role of mobile devices in the classroom. Since writing that column, I’ve discovered four relevant references that may influence one’s thinking on the issue.

1. PBS Frontline, “Digital Nation” (February 2, 2010, Season 28, Episode 3, What is the effect of media multitasking on society, education, brain development, and the economy? Interviews with researchers reveal what we now know about how badly the human brain multitasks and how some multitasking is impairing our ability to think deeply, even after the computer is turned off. In light of this research, the documentary challenges conventional wisdom about the role of technology in the classroom, yet perhaps most intriguing is the coverage of a Stanford study (see #2).

2. Ophir, Nass and Wagner, “Cognitive Control of Media Multitaskers” (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2009, vol. 106, no. 37). This study shows that students who think they are highly effective multitaskers are actually quite the opposite, or as Stanford’s Clifford Nass said in a BBC interview: “The shocking discovery of this research is that [high multitaskers] are lousy at everything that’s necessary for multitasking.” See additional coverage in Wired Magazine and The Associated Press.

3. Maggie Jackson, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age (Prometheus Books, 2008). Jackson is another who argues that despite the cultural acceptance of multitasking, such practices are undermining our own attention skills; she cites more scientific studies that suggest that we have become so distracted by multitasking that we are losing the ability to think deeply about problems. In a video interview posted on her website (, she asks,

What are the repercussions for a democracy when citizens are surrounded by information and are less and less capable of creating knowledge or learning from that information?

Jackson says that the average knowledge-based worker in the US now switches tasks every three minutes, and about half of these are interrupting. If you are wondering about the financial toll of all this multitasking and disruption, you may be interested in this…

4. “Information Overload: We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us” by Basex, a firm that researches our knowledge-based economy. Here’s an excerpt from the report abstract.

A typical worker gets 200 e-mails, dozens of instant messages, multiple phone calls (office phone and mobile phone), and several text messages, not to mention the vast amount of content that he/she has to contend with. “It’s not unlike the game of Tetris, where the goal is to keep the blocks from piling up. You barely align one and another is ready to take its place” says the report.

Information overload has become a significant problem for companies of all sizes, with some large organizations losing billions of dollars each year in lower productivity and hampered innovation. Interruptions alone cost companies in the U.S. $650 billion per year.

Basex offers solutions in a related case study about Intel’s battle with information overload and distraction. They say,

Intel’s own research indicated that each knowledge worker loses eight hours per week due to Information Overload, which for a company its size would result in a cost of $1 billion per year.

Internal Intel surveys in 2006 revealed that:
The typical Intel employee was receiving 50-100 e-mail messages daily; Employees were on average spending 20 hours per week handling e-mail; 30% of e-mails were unnecessary; Top executives reported receiving up to 300 messages per day; Intel as a company received on average 3 million e-mails a day.

In response to these numbers, Intel launched a series of seven-month-long pilot initiatives aimed at combating Information Overload. The three pilot programs were:
 Quiet Time, No E-mail Day (NED), E-mail Service Level Agreement (SLA).

For other best practices adopted by Intel, see Steve Lohr’s 20-Dec-2007 NY Times blog post about the Basex report.

Special thanks to Dr. Baha Inozu (CEO, Novaces LLC) and Prof. Corey Hwong (Baruch Dept. of Management) for introducing me to #1 and #3, respectively.

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3 Responses to Multitasking, revisited

  1. Arthur Lewin says:

    Interesting. But this train is not about to go in the other direction anytime soon. As McLuhan long observed, “The medium IS the message.” How we communicate is far more important than what we actually say. I suspect that what we have to do is make our lessons more comprehensible given all the clutter our students, and we ourselves, are dealing with.

  2. Relative to the question of mobile devices in the classroom, this is a topic we covered in our report Technologies to Teach the Thumb Generation (

    It was also touched upon in several research briefs available publicly online, including
    Keeping Pace with Gen Y -


    Teaching the Thumb Generation May Mean Throwing Out the Chalk –

  3. Before we address the effects of media multitasking, we need to have better metrics. To this end, along with two Ph.D. students, I started a metrics development effort two years ago. Although our focus is on computer-based multitasking (i.e. a single device), the metrics are also applicable to multiple devices (i.e. media multitasking). If you are interested, I can forward you the most recent paper which was presented at an Information System conference in December. Here is the reference:
    Benbunan-Fich, R.; Adler, R. and Mavlanova, T. “Developing New Metrics for Computer-Based Multitasking Behavior,” International Conference on Information Systems (ICIS), December 2009, Phoenix, AZ.

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