The Perils of Multitasking

Be mindful of your focus and avoid multitasking

Most people think they can multitask effectively, but the simple truth is that most people cannot. If you’re participating in classes remotely, it may seem like there are even more distractions than in regular classes (email, messages, movies, shopping, etc.) and you might be tempted to multitask.

People think they are “multitasking,” but most often people are “microtasking” instead. This means they are switching back and forth rapidly between tasks–NOT doing both tasks at once.

Here’s what happens when you try to do more than one task at once:

  • Assignments take longer, because each time you come back to an assignment you have to get familiar with it, find your spot, remember what you were going to do next, etc.
  • You’re more likely to make mistakes because distractions and switching between tasks tires out the brain.
  • You’ll remember less because what you are learning doesn’t get encoded properly into long-term memory.

Tip: Turn off distractions when you attend class.

Instead, do these things to move towards “monotasking”:

  • Allow yourself to focus on one thing at a time.
  • Plan breaks between tasks. Get up and stretch, check on your friends, have a snack, pet the cat or dog.
  • Consider the “Pomodoro Method” to help you focus for 25- or 50-minute periods and then reward yourself with 5- or 10-minute breaks.
  • If you find avoiding electronic distractions to be especially challenging, consider using a distraction-blocking app.

It’s easy to multitask without being fully aware of it. Try to pay attention to where your attention is going. If you find this challenging, try a guided meditation or relaxation technique.

Check out this video on Managing Multitasking!

 

For useful information, go to the Cornell COVID-19 updates page cornell.edu/coronavirus/

References:
Many of these tips are adapted from the Center for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan—thank you to our colleagues for generously sharing their resources.

Adler, R. F., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2012). Juggling on a high wire: Multitasking effects on performance. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 70(2), 156-168.

Bowman, L. L., Levine, L. E., Waite, B. M., & Gendron, M. (2010). Can students really multitask? An experimental study of instant messaging while reading. Computers & Education, 54(4), 927-931.

Law, A. S., Logie, R. H., & Pearson, D. G. (2006). The impact of secondary tasks on multitasking in a virtual environment. Acta psychological, 122(1), 27-44.

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