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You can’t multitask

You actually can’t do two things at once. Sure, you can walk and chew gum, and you can probably fold a load of laundry while watching Netflix. But chances are, if you want to catch a key plot point in the show, you’ll likely put the laundry down for a moment.

As psychological scientist and author Julia Shaw explains in The Memory Illusion*, “what we mean by multitasking is generally something more complex, doing meaningful tasks that require attention and memory, and thinking.”



What we’re really doing when we think we’re multitasking, Shaw explains, is better described as “task-switching.” She quotes neuroscientist Earl Miller, who says: “When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost.”

What we’re really doing when we think we’re multitasking… is better described as “task-switching."

That cost is our ability to concentrate, to be efficient and productive, and to remember things later. It also causes stress. Multitasking overloads our brains, says Shaw, “and, at least since the inception of the smartphone, multitasking seems to have taken on a whole new meaning.”


Digital distraction

Indeed, the smartphone is a powerful draw on our attention, even when we know the potential risks. In a study described by Doug Lederman in Inside Digital Learning, Kent State researchers surveyed 300 students about their multitasking behaviours in both online and face-to-face courses. They found, not surprisingly, that students were more likely to multitask in online courses than in face-to-face settings. Without the social monitoring provided in the classroom by instructors and peers, online students more often become distracted.


What to do instead

Are you a distracted online learner? There’s lots of advice online about how to stop multitasking and improve your focus and efficiency—a Google search yields millions of hits. Many of these tips are helpful, as are efforts to improve your self-regulation.

Here’s another approach: Harness the power of the internet to “outsource” your memory storage.

When it comes to attention and memory, digital technology is a double-edged sword. Yes, the internet draws us in and invites us to spend hours in what Tim Urban calls the dark playground,” but it also provides access to a wealth of information that in previous generations we often had to memorize. As Shaw says, “Outsourcing our information storage in this way… can free up our cognitive resources to remember other things to which we are less likely to have immediate access elsewhere.”

Harness the power of the internet to “outsource” your memory storage.

Smart editors know about this method. They rightly reason: Why memorize conventions of style in the Chicago Manual or APA when you can look the information up quickly online, saving your brain power for more complex ideas?

Interested in checking your distractibility level in an online course? We have a growing number of courses to choose from—including courses for editors—at Queen’s Professional Studies.

*Excerpts from Shaw, Julia. The Memory Illusion. Doubleday Canada. Kindle Edition.