The Effect of Multitasking on Listening

Just when the radio industry is pushing its hardest to get radios on popular mobile devices like iPhones, iPods (other than Nano) and iPads, there is some academic debate bubbling under that indicates multitasking is bad for people.

I heard a fascinating NPR discussion a few weeks back on the deleterious effects of doing more than one thing at a time and my ears perked up.

Why not?

Isn’t the main reason for existing in the media business today becoming part of this vast conspiracy of multitasking?

When I taught at USC, I asked my music industry students if they would like to learn a way to prioritize the many things that they have to do every day instead of trying to do them all at once.

They weren’t interested.

I am always talking about the importance of understanding the sociology of technology and thought you would be as interested, as I am, in this topic. After all, Apple CEO Steve Jobs is actually feeding the multi-tasking frenzy and if you listen to experts this may not be a good thing.

Some thoughts:

1. Our brains are not well adapted for multiple streams of information at the same time. Nonetheless, an entire generation has been raised on these often conflicting streams. Even older people, Blackberry users, for example, are subject to the inefficiencies of multitasking.

2. Multitasking has a negative impact on performance in spite of what we may think. In fact, studies on people who multitask the most frequently show that they think they are the best at multitasking when in fact they are the worst.

3. Technology is evolving faster than our brains and media companies can barely stay up on let alone the impact of the message on the brain.

4. Multitasking does not allow you to engage in high quality thinking. When one of the professors on this NPR program tried to offer money to multitaskers to quit for a week, they said no (I offered my students two days without their cellphones and iPods or a 17-page paper. They picked giving up their mobile devices instead of writing the paper – begrudgingly, of course).

5. More companies are playing into the multitasking danger area by asking their employees to respond to emails within a certain time period, stay engaged in social networking and otherwise keep certain screens open while they work.

I heard of a young man who was anticipating the start of a new job in a few weeks from now say, “then I’ll start my fantasy baseball team at work”.

Obviously, there are social ramifications from having our heads too far up our – well, ear buds.

Yet, the world – young and old --- becomes more fascinated with technology and staying connected.

The more laptops, iPhones and iPads I have – the more information I have available at my finger tips especially later in the day – the worse I sleep.

And I don’t want to get better.

I am addicted.

This begs the question of how we should entertain and inform in this new mobile Internet world when listeners are changing and their abilities are sometimes being compromised.

As a professor I soon learned to bag the PowerPoint presentations and tried to be compelling – in presence as well as substance. I engaged students by asking them not to turn their cellphones off (you should see their faces when a professor says that).

Invite laptops as study aids – assign people to find information while lecturing and then report to the class in real time.

But it is all worrisome.

Young people often do not listen to their tunes on mobile devices all the way to the end. Ask them. They’ll tell you. When radio plays music it starts and ends at the direction of the station. The only alternative choices was to hear it all the way through, change the station or turn the radio off. Now, iPodders can change the tune at any point along the way.

I do not believe multitasking is by nature bad (again, I am an addict), but I do know how to focus. I am an excellent prioritizer.

For those of us serious about harnessing the great mobile Internet revolution that is morphing traditional media into new media, all of this is a calling to – well, focus.

Think hard.

To me – even when I write this blog – I concentrate on how to make it unique, compelling and hopefully addictive.

Later I will answer readers mail, listen to Pandora, have a Word document open and cue up Leo Laporte's video show all at the same time.

My point: to create content without understanding the changing abilities of listeners and viewers to focus is the ultimate crapshoot.

Steve Jobs knows what he is doing when his devices feed the multitasking mania.

Do we know what we are doing before we create the content for a new generation.

I highly recommend “Does Multitasking Lead To A More Productive Brain?”. Listen here and let me know your thoughts (but not at the same time you are listenimg).

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