Can you effectively multi-task while reading?

distractionWhen I am reading, I tend to fidget with things – my fingernails, the edge of a page, my hair, anything I can get my hands on. It’s a nervous habit borne out of restlessness. But I also believe that part of it is due in some part to this new generation of instant-gratification technology. I know. It sounds like I am blaming technology for my own short-comings. Yet another malady that is showing up more and more in our lives – laying blame outside of ourselves. But allow me to muse on that other issue for a moment, if you will.

Just today, I emailed a colleague on the other side of the world, who’s workday coincides with my night. I wanted to talk to him about a work issue and my statement that I’d be monitoring email even though I may not be at the computer and working made me add in brackets “Ah the curse of the smartphone”. You see, if it is nighttime for me, I ought to be sleeping or doing home things – not monitoring email for work. One can love one’s work so much that work blends into play time as well. I have the good fortune of loving my work and thus any extra time spent doing it is not a bad thing for me.

The problem with working from home and with loving my job is that when it’s time to stop the day and focus on home things, I end up blurring the lines. I have been known to be watching a movie with my husband and end up asking him to pause the movie so I can respond to an email on my phone. There is such a thing as “too much work” – even if you happen to love the work.

Hence my supposition that my fidgeting while reading is a consequence of always being connected. I have become used to checking and re-checking email, social media feeds, and instant message conversations at all hours of the night and day. Thus when I settle in to read a book, it doesn’t take long before my mind starts to wander.

There was an article on NPR recently which chronicled an interview with Clifford Nass, an author, about multitasking. In one section, the interviewer asks Nass his feelings about people who boast about being to able to multi-task:

FLATOW: Yeah, but there are people who say, you know, I’m great at multitasking. I can – I have no problem with this. What do you say to that?

NASS: The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking. So…

The thing is, as much as we think we are accomplished in multi-tasking, it does interfere with our normal ability to focus on one thing. As I am writing this, a friend is sending me instant messages and Facebook is beeping at me with responses to posts I am following. And I am sorely tempted to look and possibly respond. Multi-tasking says I can. Being able to finish this post before midnight tonight says I shouldn’t. And according to research, if I do, I am only hurting myself in the long run.

Later on in the interview, Flatow asks:

FLATOW: So multitasking is a misnomer then? It’s like multiswitching, you say? You’re switching back and forth and not doing things at the same time.

And Nass answers with this gem:

NASS: When it comes to media, sure. So we all, of course, are breathing while we’re eating while we’re doing other things. But when it comes to media or our prefrontal cortex, the thinking part of our brain, yes, we’re basically switching back and forth. We only have about three bits’ worth of information we can mess with at any one time.

So when I stop typing to respond to an instant message, I am actually leaving my blog post behind, putting it on pause, and switching to a new task. I’m not really multitasking at all. And in fact, multitasking is only in reference to activities I can do absent-mindedly – like breathing, or drinking, or eating. If it requires any amount of thinking, I am actually switching to something new.

Thus, when I am fidgeting while reading – checking my text messages, emails, social media feeds – I am actually not multitasking at all. And I am hurting my ability to focus purely on one task at a time. You know that old saying “practice makes perfect”? Well, we are practicing to be distracted. I am, at any rate. I need to discipline myself to be able to finish a task in one sitting. I should have started with this post. Maybe I’ll get it right the next one?

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