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Do you think trying to do several things at once is an asset or an obstacle in coping with modern life?


By Carol Mithers

Published Jan 1, 2007 8:00 AM

A recent UCLA study shows that multitasking makes kids — in fact, everyone — learn less. Experts within and outside the UCLA family offer their take on this quintessentially 21st-century question.

Christopher Jenks M.B.A. '94
Director of Soft Goods, Body Glove

"Kids must learn how to multitask because it will be a big part of their lives, whether they like it or not. On the one hand, kids need to learn to focus on a specific task. This is not easy because they get easily distracted. However, the ability to focus on a task and then switch to another quickly while still maintaining the subject of the previous task is an important skill to master."

Gil Cates
Producer, Oscar Awards telecast;
Former Dean, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television

"In today's world, I think it is sadly necessary to be able to multitask. However, that is in the 'doing,' not the 'learning,' mode. In my opinion, skills are best learned separately. When one is sufficiently accomplished in a series of skills, multitasking can be helpful."

Terence Tao
2006 Fields Medal Winner;
2006 MacArthur Fellow;
UCLA Professor of Mathematics

"I prefer to concentrate on one mathematics problem at a time. I'm not really a good multitasker."

Ryan Bristol M.B.A. '07
CEO, PropPoint

"When I hire employees straight out of undergrad, I look for qualities that demonstrate a candidate's multitasking capabilities. Individuals who multitask well are oftentimes our company's best performers. Multitasking, when applied to my own life, has allowed me to balance family, work, school and social life. There also seems to be a direct correlation with my ability to multitask and manage my stress level, and achieve more personally and professionally."

Wendy Mogel
Co-founder, Los Angeles Association of Independent School Counselors;
Author, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee

"At the same moment that a district 
attorney is speaking to the worried parents at your child's school about the danger of cyber predators, your child is at home talking [online] to 60 friends instead of choosing a topic sentence for her English essay on the meaning of the name of Heathcliff's home in Wuthering Heights. At the very same time, here's your son facing two pages of tough Algebra 2 problems, and for him, multitasking is a balm. His iTunes loop function — which repeats the rhythmic, mesmerizing rat-a-tat of any song he loves, over and over — engages one neural pathway while allowing another one to tackle his homework in a less distracted, more efficient fashion. The late Lubovitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, said, 'Do not fear the Internet; it will knit the world together.' Then add Aristotle: 'Everything in moderation.' And Cesar Millan, the dog whisperer, who stresses the importance of the strong leadership of an alpha dog. You can always say, 'You have to turn those machines off now. Because I said so, and I'm the mom."

Mike Rose M.A. '70, Ph.D. '81
Professor, UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies;
Author, The Mind at Work

"People have been doing things simultaneously forever. The two big questions are these: Do the pace of modern life and the explosion of technologies compel us to do more and more things together? And what are the cognitive and emotional demands of each task? So you can wash dishes while having a casual conversation — no problem — but what about the time you're pouring your guts out and hear the tap-tap of a keyboard or the rustling of papers on the other end [of the phone]? Those tasks, like many others, don't go together. Multitasking here, it seems to me, affects both competence and decency."

Deborah Estrin
Director, UCLA Center for Embedded Networked Sensing;
Professor, Computer Science

"There is a saying by Winston Churchill — 'Anyone under 30 who isn't a liberal doesn't have a heart, and anyone over 30 who isn't a conservative doesn't have a brain.' While I don't agree with the latter part of his statement, I think something like this applies to multitasking. Youth is a time for focus, and multitasking is something that should be put off as long as possible because of the clear detriment it poses to depth. A 20-year-old who is multitasking is compromising his opportunity to contribute deeply, and a 30-year-old who is not multitasking is not attending to her responsibilities."

Joanna Robson '07
President, Bruin Belles Service Association

"Doing several things at once may hinder deep understanding of complex material such as calculus, but in order to cope with modern life, multitasking is a necessary skill. ... As a student who essentially survives by being able to do several things at once, I certainly see multitasking as an asset in coping with modern life."

Kristina Comforte '10
UCLA Women's Gymnastics

"I have noticed that the second I think about the next skill in my routine is when things go wrong. I agree that it applies to my studies as well. If I'm reading for one of my classes, and doing other things as well, then I am not paying my full attention to the reading, and therefore learning less."



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