The multitasking myth

Do you Tweet while watching TV? Or online shop while glancing up at a programme?

If so, you’re not alone.

Ofcom statistics released in the last few days provide evidence for something most of us can feel is happening to us – we just can’t seem to do one thing at once.

Owning multiple devices, the temptation is high to get on with something else at the same time as watching TV. So we email, surf, Tweet, IM, text or post an update on social media, while at the same time watching a TV show.

Looking at media multitasking, Ofcom has identified two trends. The first is media meshing – where the thing you are doing relates to the TV show you are watching, for example, Tweeting about a TV show.

The second – more common – trend is media stacking – where the media activity you are doing is unrelated to the TV show, for example, browsing the Internet while watching TV.

Some 25% of adults regularly (at least weekly) media mesh, and around half of adults (49%) regularly media stack.

But how damaging is this behaviour to us?

It’s one thing when the multitasking we are doing relates simply to watching TV. We perhaps miss out on letting our brains ‘switch off’, and lose out on time to relax. We maybe fail to absorb or remember the show we were watching. Or we don’t hear what another person in the room is saying to us about the TV show.

But beyond the living room, there are far more serious consequences.

As most of us know, this urge to multitask now extends to most aspects of our lives. With devices with us all the time, we are letting ourselves be constantly distracted.

So we email and browse the Internet while working – finding our work suffers or isn’t getting done. We text, surf and post updates while spending time with friends and family, and damage our human connections. We multitask while studying and don’t remember what we are meant to be learning.

For business, productivity, learning, health, and safety there are huge far-reaching consequences of our current digital behaviour.

When we multitask, productivity drops by around 40%. Memory and quality also suffer, and we end up feeling drained and stressed.

These are some of the things I look at in my book, The Distraction Trap, where I give advice on how to focus amid the pull of digital distractions.

We may feel like we are going fast while multitasking – zooming here, clicking there – but in fact we’re slowing ourselves down and losing the power of focus.

Other interesting findings in the Ofcom Communications Market Report 2013 include the fact that 51% of adults in the UK now own a smartphone and one in four households now has a tablet computer.

With digital use becoming so widespread, it’s time to stop and think about the consequences of inviting these devices in to every corner of our lives.

After all, there’s much to be said for plain old-fashioned TV watching, and just doing one thing at once.

© Frances Booth

The Distraction Trap: How to focus in a digital world (Pearson 2013) is available widely in bookshops and online. ISBN 978-0-273-78585-9

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