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  • Each time we switch between unrelated tasks, such as writing a report and checking our phones, our brains charge a “switch cost”.
  • The pervasiveness of technology means that people are often unaware of how often they are switching between their devices
  • Media multitasking impedes our ability to complete jobs quickly and accurately, and has also been shown to adversely affect attention-span and long-term memory
  • Stellenbosch University researchers have developed a plan to help people self-regulate their media multitasking: monitor your switching, get an app to help you, and set attainable, measurable goals 
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Checking social media, while in a meeting? You may think you’re paying attention, but you aren’t, says Doug Parry, an information scientist at the University of Stellenbosch. “We can’t multitask. What we’re doing is rapid task switching.” This is detrimental to our ability to pay attention. 

Parry, who recently published a paper on how to self-regulate media multitasking, likens our cognitive landscape to a computer’s RAM (random access memory). “You’ve loaded all the thoughts, memories of that task, but if I switch over to my phone, I load out everything to do with the task I was doing,” he explains.  

This “switch cost”, the mental cost of this shift, is greater if your tasks are very different, such as being in a lecture and checking the news on your phone, as opposed to watching a rugby game and following people’s comments about the match on Twitter – both of which are focused on the same issue. 

“If you’re [task switching] 20, 30, 40 times, you’re going to be affecting your performance,” Parry says. “Whether you’re a student, or a person in the working world, we need to filter out these distractions and focus on what we’re doing.” 

2018 review of research into multitasking and people’s minds found that, on balance, heavier media multitaskers did not do jobs as well as lighter media multitaskers. Those who multitasked often on numerous devices were also easily distracted, and had poorer long-term memory recall. 

Parry’s research aims to find ways for people to help themselves regulate their media usage. 

One of the major findings of his work, in which he researched the behaviour of students, was that people are generally unaware of how regularly they switch between tasks to, for example, check their phones. “Most people have a terrible understanding of their own behaviour,” he says. This is why the first step is to monitor how regularly you check your phone, email, or media device, he says. 

However, that is not enough. People need support, through media-restricting apps, to stop them from accessing their favourite distractions. He recommends apps, such as SelfControl and Cold Turkey, to create firm blackout times and block certain websites.  

But each person’s media multitasking profile looks different – which is why it is important to know the instances in which you are trying (and failing) to multitask, he says. For students, they might want to block out social media during lectures, while an employee may want to set up strict times in which they check email or cordon off time to finish a report. 

Sometimes, his research shows, people were overzealous in their media restrictions, failed to meet their targets, and became disheartened. The third step is to evaluate your goals and ensure that they are reasonable and attainable. “If you feel this is something you are constantly failing at, readjust your goals,” he says. 

The next step in his work will focus on solutions for companies: “Sure, it’s a problem with students and adolescents, but this is also a major factor in the workplace.”

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