STANFORD UNIVERSITY — Stanford communications professor Clifford Nass has done extensive research on our ability to multitask. We’re terrible at every aspect of it, he says, and points particularly to the impact of smartphones on our stress levels and cognitive ability.
Nass is the Thomas M. Storke Professor of Communication at Stanford University and the author of several books, including The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships.
Q. Why do I have a love/hate relationship with my smartphone?
Smartphones encourage you to do multiple things at once, which is not physiologically healthy for you because we are not built to do a multitude of tasks at one time. Research shows that multitasking lessens your ability to focus on what is relevant. Your phone makes you feel like you have to respond, which then increases your stress and harms your cognitive thinking. Also, doing multiple tasks at once can make you jittery.
Q. So it’s not the coffee, but my phone that is making me jittery?
It’s both [laughter]. The coffee doesn’t help, but your phone is also a big culprit.
Q. But what if I am really good at multitasking?
Newsflash: multitaskers are bad at every aspect of multitasking. There is evidence that the people who multitask the most are the worst at it. They are not able to focus, and it doesn’t even save time. In fact, there is no good aspect to multitasking.
Q. My phone gives me a simultaneous sense of liberation and incarceration. How is that possible?
For people who can’t manage the powerful pull of multimedia, the smartphones are a big negative. Since the industrial revolution, when a new media appears, it steals time from other activities, not just other media activities. And when you run out of time to steal, you try to multitask. For people who can manage the pull of multimedia, the phone can be a positive. It can give you the ability to be more efficient. It is easier to check your calendar or look something up.
Q. Do you have any suggestions for managing the “pull”?
Realize that multitasking doesn’t work. There is evidence that it doesn’t save time in the short run and does very significant cognitive and emotional harm in the long run.
Q. Do you have a smartphone?
Yes, I do. And I use it for checking dates on my calendar. I don’t have a lot of applications on it, and I don’t use it every five minutes.
Q. Do you have any practical tips for our reader?
Research clearly indicates that there is no such thing as checking something quickly. If you are on task, stay on that task for 15 to 30 minutes and resist the urge to do a quick phone check. Make sure you switch tasks when you are ready to do that task.
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