Look! A squirrel!

Here’s a piece of advice if you’re looking to improve your information-retention and critical-thinking skills: stop multitasking.

A growing body of research is backing up what Nicholas Carr famously (or infamously) suggested in a 2008 Atlantic article … that Google is making us stupid. Well, not so much Google itself, but the web’s wonderful, infuriating, intoxicating, addictive tendency to make us want to read about, look at or watch multiple things at once.

It’s like telling your dog, “Look! A squirrel!” All attention instantly shifts from Point A to Point B, no matter how important Point A was to the task supposedly at hand.

Researchers from Michigan State University, for example, recently reported that students who go online while taking tests tend to have lower test scores than those who don’t.

At the beginning of their study, the researchers had assumed it would be mostly students with lower ACT scores whose test performance would suffer most from distractions like email, Facebook and other online activities. It turned out they were wrong. Students with high ACT scores did worse too.

At the same time, students in the study didn’t think their online activities had any impact on their test-taking abilities.

“(H)igher rates of internet use were associated with lower test grades and students’ beliefs about this relationship did not reflect their ability to multi-task effectively,” the researchers write.

Another new study discovered that so-called “haters” — people with a strong tendency to dislike things — can often be better at specific tasks because their dispositions leave them less inclined to pursue a wide variety of activities. Likers, on the other hand, “may have more difficulty sustaining attention on a task because they perceive so many interesting and distracting opportunities in their environment. In contrast, because haters like so few things, they may be unlikely to be distracted when they are doing a task, and thus their generalized dislike may actually benefit their attentional control.”

The lesson? Don’t be a hater, but do stop trying to do more than one thing at a time: it’s bad for your brain and for your work.


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