Don’t be a Sucker… for Irrelevancy

I don’t like to multitask. It’s true. I don’t talk on the phone in the car. I keep my instant messenger off while at work. Sometimes I even turn off my email (gasp!) while I’m working on a project and need to concentrate. I don’t even like to listen to music while I work. I like it quiet. Around me is a sea of multitaskers. They obsessively check email and text messages on their mobile devices while otherwise engaged. They talk on the phone while driving and sipping a morning coffee. On phone conferences, I hear the tell tale signs of the keyboard keys and know they are listening with one ear.

Now, I can multitask a little bit; mostly with my children. Cook dinner while carrying my 18-month old, disciplining the three year old, and spelling out “b” words for the 4 ½ year old. It’s chaotic, and dinner is whatever I can make with one hand. We eat a lot of stir fry.

Conventional wisdom says this is the way things are done now. People can do more in 24 hours than ever before—except for me. But thanks to the new study out of Stanford, I feel almost righteous in my aversion to multitasking. I am not a “sucker for irrelevancy”—my favorite and most repeated sound bite from communication professor Clifford Nass, one of the researchers whose findings are published in the Aug. 24 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Turns out multitasking isn’t so good for you. Check this out from the Stanford University release about the study: “People who are regularly bombarded with several streams of electronic information do not pay attention, control their memory or switch from one job to another as well as those who prefer to complete one task at a time, a group of Stanford researchers has found.”

There’s one area where all of my professional colleagues agree we shouldn’t multitask, and that’s in the tutoring we offer. Our tutors always work with one student—giving him/her their undivided attention for as long as they are working together on a question or problem. No multitasking allowed. Students stay engaged too, working closely with the tutor until they finish the task at hand.

The students who took part in the Stanford university study were assigned tasks to test their memory and cognition, like spotting duplicates in a long string of alphabetical letters. That may not sound like your nightly math homework, but the researchers’ conclusion applies to you too: “In situations where there are multiple sources of information coming from the external world or emerging out of memory,” they wrote, students are “not able to filter out what’s not relevant to their current goal.” So the next time you’re finishing a math problem, writing an essay, or studying for a test, remember—no texting, no phone calls, and no surfing. Don’t be a sucker.

Jennifer Kohn is the Vice President for Corporate Communications at


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