By Neil Howe with Reena Nadler
Millennials are the first generation in history to grow up, from their earliest childhood, immersed in interactive digital media — from the networked PC and PDA to the MP3 player and mobile phone. This has led some commentators to make extravagant claims about how the digital age has fundamentally altered the way this rising generation reads, learns, processes information, and solves problems.
They say that Millennials, as a “Net Generation” of “digital natives,” possesses “altered cognitive wiring” that processes information in parallel, that is, everything at once. Meanwhile, older “Gutenberg” generations, as “digital immigrants,” continue to think the old-fashioned serial way, one thing after another.
Proof positive, they say, is the obvious talent Millennials have for multitasking.
Whether in their bedrooms, their dorm rooms, or their offices, today’s young people can do everything at the same time — text, game, read an assignment, watch a sitcom, do research on Google, and keep the TV on — without (apparently) missing a beat. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Generation M2 survey, this is how 8- to-18-year olds cram 10:45 hours of video, music, and reading into 7:38 hours of actual time each day.
Question: Are Millennials wired differently by their upbringing, endowed with an ability for multitasking that older generations don’t share?
Answer: No, not really. Or rather, no in all but the most qualified sense that Millennials do better at something that every generation does poorly. The best defense Millennials have for multitasking is that it can often save them time when no more than one of their activities requires any real focus or thought.
There’s really no such thing as multitasking
Let’s start with the basics. According to the vast majority of neurologists and psychologists, there is no such thing as multitasking, in the sense of lending conscious attention to more than one “task” at the same time. The seat of consciousness and recallable memory, the brain’s cerebral cortex and hippocampus, can only focus on one thing at a time.
When people “multitask,” what they are actually doing is moving their attention rapidly back and forth between tasks — and this juggling results in a sharp deterioration in the ability of any person, no matter what their age, to carry out any task. Countless clinical experiments (often involving computer screens) confirm this finding among all age groups: Tasks done one after the other, in a serial and focused fashion, are completed faster and with fewer errors than tasks that are “juggled” simultaneously.
Now for the qualifications. Experiments confirm that young adults are relatively better at multitasking than older adults. Surveys also show that young adults do multitasking and enjoy multitasking more than other age groups. The “digital natives” crowd says, well, they do it more because they’re better at it. But clearly this doesn’t make sense, because — despite their relative advantage — they would get even more done if they didn’t multitask at all.
An alternative explanation is that young people multitask more simply because they enjoy it more — even if their overall performance suffers. Why do they enjoy it more? Because they’re young.
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Over two millennia ago, Plato and Aristotle commented on the impulsiveness and volatility of youth. Over a century ago, the psychologist William James wrote eloquently of the “extreme mobility of attention” and “distractibility” of the young mind. Most contemporary psychologists agree that the brain itself does not become fully mature in its executive function until the mid-twenties. In other words, it’s not digital IT that makes youth flighty. It’s the flightiness of youth that makes them use digital IT the way they do.
A Stanford University study, published in 2009, reinforces this interpretation. The researchers separated out those college students who do the most multitasking and who evaluate themselves as especially good at it. Remarkably, the study found that these students performed worse in every type of multitasking exercise than other students.
“Expert” multitaskers just can’t help themselves
According to the authors, these “expert” multitaskers were hobbled by their inability to shut out one task while focusing on another. They were too distracted by every new stimulus to stay focused. The study’s findings are suggestive: Those who multitask a lot do it not so much because it helps them, but because they cannot help themselves.
Now for a further qualification. Our brains do allow us to multitask very well if only one of the tasks requires conscious focus and the rest are all learned or passive tasks requiring little focus. (This has been called passive background tasking — as opposed to active switch tasking).
That’s how people talk and eat or listen and drive at the same time. And that’s how teens can IM while watching a video. Either the IM or the video is not requiring much attention. By doing such tasks at the same time, busy Millennials with a lot going on in their lives will be able to squeeze more hours out of each day.
Tips to help manage multitasking
Few employers can afford to overlook the cost of multitasking in lost productivity (and employee stress). The Institute for the Future reports that the typical “Fortune 1000” employee sends and receives 178 message per day and is interrupted three times per hour. Some tips:
- Inform your employees about how and why multitasking can undermine their effectiveness, especially when they are working on challenging and high-performance tasks. Many young people have never been told this—even by their own parents. Millennials are used to lessons on time management, but often need help in drawing boundaries between themselves and the group. Many think (wrongly) that being a good team player means leaving your front door open at all hours.
- Give employees tasks that are creative enough to give them an incentive to focus. Make sure they grasp the point of what they’re doing. Many switch-taskers say they don’t care how productive they are because their work is “just dumb.” And background-taskers often learn to carry out their job repetitively with little thought (in which case, multitasking may or may not be a problem).
- Avoid blanket restrictions on Internet, PDAs, or mobile phones, except at meetings or in the classroom (Millennials will want specific rules here). But there is still plenty you can do to help your employees avoid distractions. Make it easy for them to hold all office calls, to take their email off ping, to press one key to block all incoming online communication, or (with software like WriteRoom) to black out everything on their computer screen except for the text window they’re working on.
- Frequent meetings and ad-hoc coworker interruptions (virtual or face-to-face) are the single biggest cause of involuntary multitasking. Consider formalizing the process of setting up a meeting to ensure that every meeting has a clear purpose. Reduce interruptions by encouraging recurrent weekly meetings between team members in which a week’s worth of issues can be discussed. Institute meeting-free Fridays (a growing favorite) or even email-free Tuesdays or Thursdays. Most Millennials will appreciate such efforts to structure the work week.
- Make sure that the desirable norm in your workplace is calm focus, not multi-modal madness. Leadership by example is indispensable.
Excerpted from Millennials in the Workplace, by Neil Howe with Reena Nadler. Copyright 2010 by LifeCourse Associates. Reprinted with permission from LifeCourse Associates.