Is digital multitasking good for us?

@IE University

We know for certain that nothing is black and white, and that with time we will continue to discover more about how we interact with technology, helping us take control and make the best use of innovative digital resources.

Technology is designed for multitasking. Whether via apps or browser tabs, it’s easy to be active in many different digital spheres at the same time. For most of us, that’s just the way it is. We’re so used to digitally multitasking, we find ourselves doing it throughout the day.

But have you ever stopped to think about the impact all this digital multitasking is having on our effectiveness and productivity? Do you think it has an overall positive or negative effect? Well, according to the first studies… we aren’t really sure.

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It turns out that measuring multitasking is much more complicated than we would imagine. In 2009, a study found that people who multitask a lot on the Internet struggle to multitask in a lab environment. But just four years later, a new study got contradictory results.

It seems that technological progress is advancing at such a fast pace that the results of experiments can change over time. That hasn’t stopped researchers from continuing to explore the pros and cons of multitasking in the digital age. Below are the most recent results.

What multitasking is

While it may seem obvious to us, multitasking is actually a very complicated process. According to one study on human behavior, multitasking involves switching between different sets of hierarchies, with each intended to achieve a goal. To take the example the study gives, if you are making breakfast, you have an overall goal of preparing everything. But to get there, you have a “goal tree” made up of different tasks of varying priorities: pouring coffee, making toast, etc. If this goal tree is interrupted by, say, a phone call, you now have a new goal tree. Switching between them is multitasking.

In a digital environment, many separate, graded goal trees might be going on at the same time. In fact, you could almost think of it as the tabs on your browser. Every one could represent its own goal tree, and you switch between them to achieve each goal.

This is the act of multitasking, but what does this mean for you?

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Distractions

Yes, you’ve probably guessed it—distraction is the worst part of digital multitasking. According to one article, the average person checks their phone every 12 minutes. And since we have literally a world of potential websites or apps at our fingertips, it’s no wonder we get distracted easily.

In fact, according to one study carried out by a university in Barcelona with school-age children, this was one of the main findings. One boy reportedly said, “I like the Internet more, it’s more fun, but I get off track much more than with notes or a book.”

Technology IE University

What can I do?

While distractions are an issue, there’s always a way to get over them. In fact, the best way to fight technological distractions is with technology. Apps like Moment limit the amount of time you are able to spend procrastinating. By tracking the amount of time you spend on your phone and setting goals, you’re able to take control of your phone usage. There are other similar apps like Silent Time which will automatically put your phone on silent depending on your own personal timetable.

Getting sucked into the wormhole

The Internet provides access to so much information right when we want it. In a matter of seconds, we’re able to find out nearly anything we can think of. But sometimes this can be a blessing in disguise. In the study undertaken in Barcelona, one of the students interviewed summed this up quite well. He said, “Sometimes on the Internet I know where I begin but I don’t know where I end up, and then I have to go back and remember what I was looking for.”

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We can all relate to this. We begin looking up one piece of information, then that takes us to another page, then on to another, and before long we’re lost down the Wikipedia wormhole getting further and further away from our initial goal.

What can I do?

This is caused by a lack of focus where we’re unsure exactly what we’re looking for. To combat this, it’s important to set specific goals before you begin researching so you can find the answers without getting caught in a never-ending research cycle.

Better comprehension

One of the most striking findings of the Barcelona study is that student’s comprehension is higher with the use of computers and digital blackboards. As one of those who took part in the study said, “If I don’t look at the electronic blackboard and the computer I don’t understand anything.”

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There’s no clear reason why this happens but it could have something to do with the highly interactive nature of the digital environment. As you’re able to interact more with digital tools, despite the higher chance of distraction, you could end up retaining more knowledge.

Behavioral studies is a fascinating and multifaceted area, but one that’s difficult to measure scientifically. And when you combine this with the fast-moving world of technology, it can become almost impossible to accurately gauge the effect the digital sphere is having on our neurological development.

That said, we know for certain that nothing is black and white, and that with time we will continue to discover more about how we interact with technology, helping us take control and make the best use of innovative digital resources.