How Multitasking Can Hurt Your GMAT Score

Do you “multitask”?  Probably you do.  A survey showed that “the top 25 percent of Stanford students use four or more media at one time whenever they’re using any media. So when they’re writing a paper, they’re also Facebooking, listening to music, texting, Twittering, et cetera. And that’s something that just couldn’t happen in previous generations even if we wanted it to.”

What is the definition of multitasking?

Multitasking is originally a word associated with computers. The earliest computers could only do one thing at a time so it was revolutionary when computers began to be able to process two or more jobs concurrently. Now your computer can run many programs at (or seemingly at) the same time.

In relation to humans, multitasking means to perform two or more tasks simultaneously. This may not, in fact, be possible at all. A website on multitasking from the University of Queensland (Australia) had this to say:

“Many scientists believe the ability to multi-task is a myth… Unlike computers, which can perform tasks at lightning speed, the human brain needs to switch between tasks, depending on which area of the brain is being used. Multi-tasking often involves goal switching and re-evaluating, which experts say takes time. What appears to be human multi-tasking is more akin to channel surfing between television stations.”

“Channel surfing” does not sound nearly as good as “multitasking” but it may be nearer to the truth! The type of multitasking that people try to accomplish in the modern world is called “foreground multitasking.” This is where you try to do two or more things at the forefront of your mind. This is the multitasking that may not even be possible. For example, concentrating on typing an email and really listening to a person who is talking to you is very difficult. One task or the other is likely to suffer, so we end up actually switching back and forth since this is the only way a person can cope with these situations. We “channel surf” between one task and the other.

If you think of “multitasking” as really a process of rapidly switching back and forth between tasks you can see why it would be inefficient. Think about a triathlon. Even world-class athletes with modern equipment lose some time switching between swimming and running and biking. In those events they complete the entire swim and then transition to the bike and then to the run. I cannot imagine that the race would be more efficient if, every few minutes, the athletes switched back and forth between events. Too much time is lost in the transition.

As expected, research shows that multitasking is indeed less efficient. A recent article called “The Cognitive Costs of Multitasking” indicated that multitaskers were found to be 40% LESS productive at work. All of that switching back and forth takes energy. You have to reload the information every time you switch back and forth and this can be very inefficient.

But that’s not me.

Now I can hear you saying it, “This is not me. I can focus when I need to. Even though I multitask I can switch into ‘GMAT-mode’” Right? Wrong!

Dr. Clifford Nass, Professor of Communication at Stanford has been at the forefront of research into multitasking. Dr. Nass found that “the most striking thing about multitaskers is that they do not know they even have a problem. They say “look, when I really have to concentrate, I turn off everything and I am laser-focused. And unfortunately, they’ve developed habits of mind that make it impossible for them to be laser-focused. They’re suckers for irrelevancy. They just can’t keep on task.”

It seems the first step is to admit that you have a problem.

Part 2 of this article discusses multi-tasking as it specifically relates to the GMAT.

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David Newland has been teaching for Veritas Prep since 2006, and he won the Veritas Prep Instructor of the Year award in 2008. Students’ friends often call in asking when he will be teaching next because he really is a Veritas Prep and a GMAT rock star! Read more of his articles here