Read this while checking your BlackBerry

By Middlebury Campus

Multitasking plays the dual role of virtue and vice. While some list it under the skills section on their resumés, others condemn its effect on our attention spans and our ability to retain information.  In order to prevent us from multitasking, my Winter Term professor has banned laptops in our classroom, and I’m confident she’s not alone in this decision.

There’s no doubt disadvantages to multitasking exist — just ask anyone who has had their bumper bent by a driver on a cell phone.  As researchers continue to explore the topic, studies across multiple fields have found that multitasking is weakening our ability to learn, increasing our stress levels, breaking down the structure of the family and changing the way we interact as humans.
Researchers also believe that people become addicted to multitasking and have trouble turning off multitasking tendencies. I met someone recently who told me that she doesn’t watch movies because she can’t “do something for that long.” Maybe she’s not watching the right movies, but it’s easy to recognize the irony in feeling the need to be further entertained during something that’s supposed to be a form of entertainment in and of itself.

Much of the research surrounding multitasking focuses on the use of technology as a multitasking tool. Cell phones, laptops and any Apple gadget that begins with a lowercase “i” all have adamant opponents who believe technology unnecessarily clutters our everyday lives.  But people often hold mistaken opinions, especially about the potential effects of technology. My dad loves to tell the story of the former board chairman of IBM who predicted in 1943 a world with “maybe five computers.” Now that individual households sometimes have more than five computers, it’s just as popular to lament the negative effects of these machines on human interaction (see the most recent blog post by Dean of the College Shirley Collado) as it is to praise the opportunities for connections provided by the boom of social media.

Since no one can definitively predict the future, I find it unproductive to condemn the progress of the present. I’d like to ask everyone — behavioral psychologists, professors and especially my mother — to have a little faith. Believe in your ability and the ability of the rest of the human race to adapt to technological changes. Most importantly, give multitasking a chance to be used in positive ways.
I believe in the potential productivity of multitasking. If I check my e-mail during a lecture, doesn’t that make my life more productive?  Take any class in the Economics department and they’ll teach you that everything has an opportunity cost, but that those costs can be hard to measure. It’s hard to definitely say whether a lecture or an e-mail from another professor is more important, but in the end, it’s my education and I’m the person who has to live with the consequences, so I’d like to make that decision without judgment from my professor and classmates.

It’s important to note that except for simple activities like walking and chewing gum, true multitasking is impossible. Instead, you’re actually switching back and forth between each task, usually at a fast pace. Turning away from something and returning to it can offer the opportunity to discover a new perspective with the renewed attention. As an editor, I’ve been told multiple times that the best way to catch mistakes in writing is to “sleep on it” and return to the work for a final edit the next day.  Well, it’s 2011 now, and checking Facebook just became the new “sleeping on it.”

By stigmatizing our attention spans as shallow and unfocused, educators and employers alike not only discount most of our generation but also fail to capitalize on a beneficial skill. Meet us halfway. Accept that our attention switches quickly and recognize that this plays to our advantage when we’re simultaneously brainstorming product ideas while also in a meeting discussing how to strengthen alliances with other companies.  While we may not be fully focused, we’ve gotten a head start on a new idea. We can flesh out the details later while we’re eating lunch, checking the latest headlines, uploading photos and working on our laptops — yep, you guessed it — all at the same time.