Calling All Multitaskers

By Debbie Briner
From the July 2012 issue of Columbus CEO

Juggling all those balls at work again? Maybe it’s OK to let one drop, according to a recent media multitasking study by Zheng Joyce Wang, an assistant professor at Ohio State University’s School of Communication.

Wang and graduate student John Tchernev asked 32 undergrads to log their media use for 28 straight days using a cell phone-like device. Students reported when they watched TV, checked Facebook or read a book, and whether they were doing something else at the same time.

Students also were asked to assign motivation to their activities. Was it used for fun or to socialize? Was it just a habit or to provide background noise? Was it to study?

It turns out that students’ cognitive functions—such as studying—took a hit when they were media multitasking. So Mom knows what she’s talking about when she tells you to turn off the electronics while doing your homework. “Multitasking doesn’t help with cognitive needs. It’s very bad,” Wang says.

Instead, multitasking gave the students an emotional reward. “Multitasking caused them to feel good,” says Wang. “It almost can be addictive.”

Do the same principles apply at the office, where the ability to multitask is worn like a badge of honor? Maybe, says Wang. She theorizes many multitaskers are less productive than they—and their bosses—think they are. “We do really need to watch out,” she cautions. “Maybe we’re not truly being productive. It can be stressful and impair performance.”

Reprinted from the July 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.