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Video: Multi-Tasking is Bad For Your Brain. Here’s How To Fix It

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All the streams from the social web have created a flood of information over the past few years. With this influx of life and data streams comes the desire to stay on top of it all. And for many people, that means multi-tasking. Checking email while Tweetdeck keeps up with Twitter, while we pop over to Facebook to look at our friends’ latest photos.

It’s intuitive to think that handling so many tasks at once makes us better at handling many tasks. But that’s wrong, according to Stanford professor Clifford Nass. According to Nass, the more you multi-task, the worse you get at it, and it adversely impacts your ability to do all kinds of things a brain should do (like, you know, think). He’s just written a book called The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, which explores how as computers have become more human-like, we as users have started treating them as such. Additionally, Nass writes, we can study how people interact with computers to see how we’ll act with each other.

Nass stopped by GigaOM HQ last week and told us about some of the findings from his research like:

  • What computers and T-shirts can teach us about team building.
  • How his team got people to actually like Microsoft’s Clippy (I know! Impossible, right?).
  • The dangers of multi-tasking and what is the optimal method for modern day workers.

Watch the video and see if you could adopt Nass’ unit-tasking office universe. Have a better idea? Leave us your thoughts in the comments.

29 Responses to “Video: Multi-Tasking is Bad For Your Brain. Here’s How To Fix It”

  1. This video, which I found through Lifehacker, has inspired me to take up the topic of multitasking in my thesis for my graduate degree. Thanks for sharing and thanks to Clifford for such great insight!

    Also, I would love to know if there is uncut/extended video from the interview available somewhere on your site.


  2. Jonathan

    I completely disagree with Dr. Nass. We have been progressively multitasking since the ice age. We have gotten better at multitasking, not worse. It’s a natural evolution to want to do more tasks at the same time, reducing time and increasing productivity. If Dr. Nass were correct then we would see an overall decline in productivity, not increase. The industrial revolution would have fizzled. Perhaps for Dr. Nass multitasking has led to his own mental demise..

    Try to imagine yourself single-tasking for an entire day. Better yet do it, film it, and show it to the world. I don’t believe it’s possible to remain competitive, in all aspects of a social and professional life, unless you can multitask in some fashion. The brain is a powerful machine. Give it time and it will learn to do many, many things.

  3. Thanks for opening this up for discussion. I love the multi-tasking information, and will continue to experiment with it. However, I did not agree with your team building strategy of “us and them.” It may move people into action, but it can also limit our ability to access a level of consciousness that is far more creative and productive than the old left brain mode of “us and them.” I have started an experimental blog on this:

  4. Just Cirroc

    NatGeo, Discovery, et cetera should be building programs around these types of subjects instead mindless reality shows.

    Professor Nass is simply fascinating to watch.

    Thanks for such a wonderful interview.

  5. This is brilliant, thank you!

    Such a smart, engaging speaker. And so true.

    I’m fighting against all these natural urges too, and am slowly bringing them under control. I manage to switch email and my Twitter client off for an hour at a time now!


    I’ve recently set up a blog all about this stuff, and my ongoing efforts to beat my natural inclination to distraction/procrastination through social media and multi-tasking…

    Thanks for a great video. Have tweeted this post!

  6. I agree about the concerns on negative impact of multi-tasking and multiple information flows to our brain in terms of concentration, memory and productivity.

    A good solution to this problem was already defined in 1992. The principles are pretty the same as those described in the video.

    Have a look at the Pomodoro Technique:

    You can find even a app for your Mac to run pomodoro…

    – Sergio

    • It’s complicated. For a good start. Read
      The short version, it affects plasticity(learning).

      But if you want to work in that field don’t be discouraged. Since the real question is not if we reach anything close to singularity. The question is do we need to build an artificial Hummingbird to build a flying machine? Or do we need to understand the equation of lift? One leads us to a super efficient flying machine, we are not capable of replicating, the other leads us to Kitty Hawk. And some fly around in hot air balloons (boolean system), they just have the illusion of being able to fly like a bird.

  7. gggirlgeek

    So basically, TV rots your brain… unless you do nothing else! Sounds like a plan to me! :-D Seriously though, it seems like I have always known these things about attention. I can’t even watch TV with someone else in the room. I get really serious about my shows and hunker down in my blankets with my finger on the rewind button so I don’t miss a word. I am the same way about conversations with people, and even writing this post. If you have my attention, you have it completely and I don’t want to be interrupted. That’s what voice mail is for! Next time, someone cuts me off to answer a text, I think I’m going to look them in the eye, pick up my phone and call them. I’ve even had people forget they were messaging with me because they were chatting with someone else. What a way to say you’re important, hunh?

  8. Great interview! This very closely resembles the GTD Method. I wonder if they’re related at all?
    I’d be very interested in more interviews like this from you chris. You seemed to ask some great questions.

    Thanks for the post! I’ve shared it with many friends.


  9. If he means by multitasking the quick succession of unrelated tasks. I agree, if he means parallel processing, I disagree. The brain is more advanced at parallel processing than our attempts at multiprocessing make it look like.

    What happens if we loose our sense of touch? We fall down(no gravity info), and our limps move rather uncontrolled. Parallel processing of related data, parallel feedback loops(which stopped working in this case). This is based on published Neurology(101) papers(can’t find a link right now).

    So instead of starting/stopping unrelated work, we should build apps which correlate the stream instead of interrupting us. One thing is for sure it (data) will get more and filtering in means of stopping/starting might just not work.

    • Chris Albrecht

      That’s an interesting add-on. Now the trick is just building that app which can correctly identify and group those similar tasks together. Though given how much people griped about Goog’s priority inbox, this is probably a tough nut to crack.

      • Why can we learn “all” before we can count or have any concept of numbers(with a really slow immature brain, which just has mastered to learn from negative feedback)? Why are there one-two-many cultures(people without “any” numerical concept past three)?

        Sounds to me like our applied math is wrong. Google just wants to make things fast, not smarter. No surprise here, it’s actually not that hard. You just have to look beyond the Valley echo chamber.

        BTW: I use “all” always as an demonstration since it can be shown easily as a simple parallel structure, which we can learn early on and teach a machine first. Even with a parallel addressing scheme … that gives people something to think about. Specially since it’s based on BAC (Backpropagation Activated Calcium) and doubles as working memory. OK, at some point a 100t problem has to get complex.

  10. This video failed :)
    It distracted me from my other streams, for less than 15min…
    But seriously good stuff. I already started to isolate myself for some period of time during the day to get things done. It works incredibly well (I guess I forgot how well it was before).