Multitasking: Efficient Or Ineffective?

Like any college student, I spend every week attending a mixture of lectures and seminars. While my seminars are very small—often around 10 people seated in a circle—share the lectures with as many as a hundred other people. And unlike the 10 people in my seminar, whose active engagement is vitally necessary, those hundred people are incredibly likely to while away their $1,000–$3,000 lecture dicking around on the Internet.

For the past few weeks, I’ve engaged in the spirit of my anthropology lecture by devoting a few minutes during each lecture to observing my classmates while our professor lectures. I’ve seen them shop for jeans, play Tetris, and carry on multiple Facebook conversations. Last class, I watched as the boy next to me furtively glanced to either side, dimmed the brightness of his laptop screen, and researched local tanning salons online. Thanks to a new Apple update, Mac users can now text from their laptops, and indeed, my classmates have taken full advantage of this feature. I’ve even (astoundingly) seen a girl watch Powerpuff Girls without sound.

If you’re going to spend all of your time on the Internet, why do you even bother coming to class?

According to an article published in The New Atlantis, multitasking has two serious effects on productivity. Researchers at University of California at Irvine recently found that “workers took an average of twenty-five minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or answering e-mail and return to their original task.” Multitasking also inhibits short term memory, so information learned during multitasking—such as that deadly combination of a lecture and 12 simultaneous Facebook conversations—is much more difficult to recall.

After all of these thoughts, I’ve finally hit upon the solution. It’s alarmingly simple. It’s unavoidably true.

Multitasking during class doesn’t work.

This is hard to accept when everyone around you seems to be flawlessly handling everything you’re doing and then some. Trust me, they’re not. We are all succeeding in areas that others struggle with and struggling in areas that are a breeze to others. FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) will retain its stranglehold on our productivity as long as we trade class time for frantic clicking through the latest, greatest Facebook photos from last night.

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Yet multitasking does seem to be the only solution to the way college students must constantly juggle tasks. Personally, I think of my stressful schedule as constant triaging, purposely borrowing a hospital term that evokes high stakes and stress. However, I am noticeably calmer and more productive if I leave my computer in my backpack while completing a book reading. Two years ago, I stopped using my computer to take notes, opting instead for a simple pen and notebook to prevent myself from becoming too distracted. Although these solutions have worked for me so far, I realize that they won’t work for everyone. I believe that to successfully single-task and live in the present, you must strive to cultivate mindfulness in whatever form you find personally relevant.

I’ll end by admitting that I’m a hopeless multitasker as well. In the course of writing this article, I streamed Beck’s new album on NPR, took mini-breaks by reading a paragraph or two of a long article in The Atlantic that I’ve been chipping away at, texted my friend about a costume party, bought a ticket to see The Zombies, and checked my Facebook and email multiple times.

I haven’t mastered single-tasking yet, but I’m working on it (and five other things, at the same time).

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