The Multitasking Virus and the End of Learning? Part 1

Josh Waitzkin’s learning abilities–and principles–extend far beyond chess.

Some of you might be familiar with Josh Waitzkin.

He was the subject of the book and movie, Searching for Bobby Fischer and an eight-time National Chess Champion in his youth. He also holds a combined 21 National titles in addition to several World Championships in martial arts, and now trains hedge funds and other companies in high-end learning and performance psychology. His cross-transfer of skill acquisition is incredible.

I reached out to Josh after reading his book, The Art of Learning, and we fast became friends. Between practicing kneebars and waxing philosophical or tactical about learning, we now tend to discuss our shared concern for the direction of modern education.

This is part 1 of a 2-part article written by Josh about what he calls the “multitasking virus.”


A few weeks ago, I returned to the classroom of Dennis Dalton, the most important college professor of my life. From the back of an amphitheater seating several hundred students, I realized how much things had evolved at Columbia and Barnard. The lecture hall was now equipped with a wireless sound system, webcams, video projectors, wireless internet. Students were using computers to record the lecture and to take notes. Heads were buried in screens, the tap tap of hundreds of keyboards like rain on the roof.

On this afternoon, April 16, 2008, Dalton was describing the satyagraha of Mahatma Gandhi, building the discussion around the Amritsar massacre in 1919, when British colonial soldiers opened fire on 10,000 unarmed Indian men, women and children trapped in Jallianwala Bagh Garden. For 39 years, Professor Dalton has been inspiring Columbia and Barnard students with his two semester political theory series that introduces undergrads to the ideas of Gandhi, Thoreau, Mill, Malcolm X, King, Plato, Lao Tzu. His lectures are about themes, connections between disparate minds, the powerful role of the individual in shaping our world.

Dalton is a life changer, and this was one of his last lectures before retirement.

Over the course of a riveting 75-minute discussion of the birth of Gandhian non-violent activism, I found myself becoming increasingly distressed as I watched students cruising Facebook, checking out the NY Times, editing photo collections, texting, reading People Magazine, shopping for jeans, dresses, sweaters, and shoes on Ebay, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew, reorganizing their social calendars, emailing on Gmail and AOL, playing solitaire, doing homework for other classes, chatting on AIM, and buying tickets on Expedia (I made a list because of my disbelief). From my perspective in the back of the room, while Dalton vividly described desperate Indian mothers throwing their children into a deep well to escape the barrage of bullets, I noticed that a girl in front of me was putting her credit card information into Urban She had finally found her shoes!

When the class was over I rode the train home heartbroken, composing a letter to the students, which Dalton distributed the next day. Then I started investigating. Unfortunately, what I observed was not an isolated incident. Classrooms across America have been overrun by the multi-tasking virus. Teachers are bereft. This is the year that Facebook has taken residence in the national classroom.

Students defend this trend by citing their generation’s enhanced ability to multi-task. Unfortunately, the human mind cannot, in fact, multi-task without drastically reducing the quality of our processing. Brain activation for listening is cut in half if the person is trying to process visual input at the same time. A recent study at The British Institute of Psychiatry showed that checking your email while performing another creative task decreases your IQ in the moment 10 points. That is the equivalent of not sleeping for 36 hours—more than twice the impact of smoking marijuana. But to be honest, on the educational front, multi-tasking feels to me like a symptom of a broader sense of alienation.

I know what it is like to be disengaged. In fact, the crisis that played a large role in ending my chess career was rooted in becoming disconnected from my natural love for learning…

[Continued in Part 2]

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84 Replies to “The Multitasking Virus and the End of Learning? Part 1”

  1. WOW! Killer Post. Does this multi-taking connect or have any relevance with the so called ADD? They seem like they would go hand in hand. Is any multi-tasking good?, or should it be strict all around? I myself have noticed that sometimes it may take me 20 mins to brush my teeth due to the fact that I am either getting a call or being texted. My guess would be to remain focused regardless of the small distractions that cause huge interruptions. How do you remain focused all the time? Does the mind not have a natural tendency to want to gravitate towards other things?


    Jose Castro-Frenzel

  2. Multitasking isn’t the problem, it’s only a tool after all. Of course it reduces the quality of your work, but if you’re competent enough, most of the time you don’t need your full attention. The real problem is that if the stuff you’re doing most of the time don’t require your full attention then you’re doing unnecessary stuff that shouldn’t be done (at least not by you). In economics we know that every worker should be doing the job their best, even if worker A is better than worker B at both job A should keep doing its own job, because the overall efficiency increases. Multitasking usually is a symptom of task mismanagement, you should use it only in times of crisis, as a last resort, not as normal operation mode.

  3. As a current student at UCLA, I see this “viral multi-tasking” everywhere. Fighting it won’t solve the problem. That is why teachers whom say “No texting” always have more of it in their classrooms. What we need in schools are Accelerating Learning techniques, which I’m sure you’re familiar with Tim. For example, being physically active, actively responding back to the teacher, and using whole brain thinking. This will 1) increase retention of material, 2) keep students fully engaged and interested, thus no desire to multi-task. Couple this with more practical and relevant subjects in school. There was a well known study that stated each individual is a genius in at least one way. Things like spacial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, verbal/communicative, bodily kinesthetics, and a few more. In our schools we need to foster the gifts that each individual innately possesess. Our school system today teachers us how to be teachers and only tests us on one kind of intelligence. Personally, I believe that LeBron James doing kicking butt on the basketball court makes him an incredible genius just as much as Josh Waitzkin is with chess.

    I’m with you Tim…our educational system needs a major re-vamp. The intention of school should not be to “get out as fast as possible” and not care about learning, which is the mass mentality here at UCLA. I’d love to know your thoughts of re-inventing education.

    I’d like to know your opinion on Paul Scheele’s programs, such as Paraliminals and PhotoReading. Have you used any of his products, or know those who have? Thanks!


  4. Good Lord. I understand the importance of getting computers into the classroom, but it sounds like some students are abusing the concept. Perhaps the professor needs to ask for “laptops down” during lecture, and open them only if you have an idea you want to share and research with the rest of the class. It’s like passing notes on steroids 🙁


  5. We increasingly live in an Attention Deficit World – too much information, to many distractions.

    Strictly speaking, yes it is a personal choice to stay focussed on a task, a lecture or anything else. But it can be difficult.

    Suppose it requires a) more self awareness to realise you are distracted and multi tasking b) the ability to hit the breaks and c) some old fashioned discipline

    Great post, thanks for helping me hit the breaks

  6. I completely agree with you about the scourge of multitasking. It beggars the question though why colleges still bother with lectures; given the complete lack of attention paid they would be better off videoing the lecture and making it available on YouTube for the students to watch whilst they’re doing ten other things at the same time.

  7. The last line said it all.

    “…disconnected from my natural love for learning.”

    I disconnected in 7th grade. And it took me about 20 years to figure out one of the reasons why:

    Ridiculous homework.

    “Read pages 278 to 332 of Intro to Geology and write a minimum of 5 pages by tomorrow.”

    First, I am given something I don’t really want to read, in a class I am forced to take, on a subject that has no immediate or future relevance to my life. Second, I am told that I must write a “minimum.” That just takes the love of writing 20 pages right out because now I feel that, hey, if there’s a minimum it must not be fun. Repeat cycle 200 days for 12 years and there you have it, a Facebook surfer doodling through a riveting lecture on civil disobedience.

    Folks, the problem is beyond simply reforming schools. What is necessary is a complete revamp of how and why we learn. Galileo said ““You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him discover it in himself.”

    How have we succeeded in revamping learning in our own family? Our kids don’t go to school, pretty much play and read all day (whenever they want), and are reading several years ahead of their school-going peers.

    It’s not that homeschooling is so wonderful. It’s just that ordinary schooling is so bad. And the human mind has a very natural inclination towards learning that can only be suppressed by years of irrelevant nonsense.

    It was Noam Chomsky, the polymath and great contemporary linguist, who once commented that he knew there was something wrong with schools when his friend got an A for handing in a mediocre paper on time, and he got a B for something he really put his heart into but was late.

  8. Just to present another side of the argument, I know that many college lectures totally suck. Also, some people may not be good auditory learners.

    I went to school in New Orleans, and during Mardi Gras week, people would show up to lecture with a beer!

    I’m just not sure how much is *really* changing. If anything, I’m noticing an increase in the caliber of fresh grads joining the workforce (for engineers at least).

  9. Thank You! I love this post and I am looking forward to the second part….I’ll be ordering ‘The Art of Learning’ from Amazon…

    Something that came to mind after reading this article was that the essence of Zen has been described as ‘doing one thing at a time’. Sounds simple, and it is, yet it is extremely rare for anyone in our culture to do this. Even if a person is not distracted by their laptop or blackberry, they’re usually still lost in thought, never focusing their attention fully on the moment. This is how a person gets to their deathbed and feels like they missed their life, because their attention was never focused on the present moment, on life itself.

    But obviously “The Multi-Tasking Virus” has much more far-reaching repercussions–the fact that these students were deadened to the moving description of their fellow human beings’ intense suffering—that’s incredibly disturbing.

  10. I saw a lot of this in Law School. After one particular bad class of out of control IM, the laptop didn’t come to class again. Plus, I just felt more connected when I was taking notes by hand, without the computer between the professor and me. (and I felt that transcribing my notes close to finals times really helped my memory of the subject matter revive).

    I’m not heard that some Law Schools are disconnecting the wireless service in classrooms and some professors are even banning laptops. Given the interactive nature required by law instruction (via the Socratic method), I can’t say I blame them.

    I have to admit, that weak as I am with the enticement of the interweb, I will sometimes disconnect my laptop at work, lest I be tempted. It kills me that I lack the discipline to do otherwise, but whatever works.

  11. Amen!

    As a college professor I can attest to this problem. Unfortunately most students are not able to multi-task effectively and their marks show it.

    I have the blessing and the curse of teaching at a small school with small class sizes. That means it is easier to prevent students from surfing the web, but when they do it causes more of a disruption.

    This year I’ve had to add a line in my syllabus putting limits on the use of cell phones and laptops in the classroom. We will see if it works. Until then……

    Thanks for the post!

  12. If this is the case then surely education is a results based environment and these students will not succeed in passing their courses. If they ARE passing their courses then either you can up the passmark or accept that they have learned and accomplished enough.

    As much as it distresses me that the correct level of respect is not being paid to the lecturer, I don’t think that level of respect has been apparent in western culture for a long long time.

    When you are young you know it all, and it is a rare case that a student thinks otherwise. It is only with wisdom and experience that one realises that opportunities were missed, and if you had only listened to your mother….etc

  13. As a university student myself, I have to admit that I have (on many an occasion) been guilty of multitasking during lectures, and am ashamed to say that my multitasking included the majority of Josh’s list.

    Fortunately – near the end of my previous year of schooling, and recently moreso, I’ve started to realize the impact of multitasking. Besides the drop in IQ (interesting stat!), I now find myself unable to concentrate on one thing at a time – to concentrate, I need more than one source of stimulation. That scares me a bit, to be honest, and I am working on getting my ability to focus back.

    I can’t wait for the second half of this, and to start classes again in September to try out my new & improved focusing skills…

  14. This is one of the issues addressed in John Medina’s book, Brain Rules.

    I haven’t actually read the book yet (though I plan to) but from what I’ve come across, the book elucidates certain rules on how the brain works – based on supposedly verified scientific studies – and how much of what we do today doesn’t follow those rules, for example, the prominence of multitasking. I’ve definitely noticed the detrimental effect of multi-tasking on my own thinking, so I try to avoid it, but not always with success. Multi-tasking is one of those great ways to feel productive without necessarily being productive.

  15. Sounds like kids being kids to me. Is it ideal? No. Is it something that some people beyond a certain age will never really accept/understand because the option wasn’t even there when they were at school? Possibly.

    If the Hipster PDA has taught us anything, it’s that eventually these things will come full-circle.

  16. Hey Tim,

    when will the next book be out ?

    I think I know what some of the chapters will be about 🙂

    Thanks for your great blog !

  17. This is, without a doubt, my favourite thing i’ve been lucky enough to read on here.

    It’s symptomatic of an entire change in the education system.

    Here (in Australia), it’s an economic rationalist imperative to view education as a tool for increasing individual wage/benefits later in time.

    The problem is, that it’s not viewed as good for society at large. Education is the best single indicator of personal happiness and an educated populus can better provide for itself and not rely as heavily on government hand outs.

    But this individually focused environment eschews these benefits. In return I think that many students reflect this back – displaying a sense of individual entitlement that’s pretty offensive to some. I know I do it.

    But after reading this – i’m going to leave my laptop in my bag during lectures now (Honestly i’ve never touched the internet in a lecture though).

  18. I doubt most people are truly aware of how much time they spend on these small distracting activities. I’ve started using rescuetime to monitor what I’m doing on the computer minute-to-minute. When you can see what you’re doing you can take steps to change it.

  19. Thing is Tim, these students aren’t multitasking! They are just sitting through the class, bored.

    Do you get bored Tim? Do you think Josh does? It’s a rhetorical question because I know every good, dedicated and passionate learner doesn’t get bored. There is always more to learn – even if you know more than anyone else…

    These students are just spending their time there in case the lecturer makes a comment like “this will be on the finals”. Of course, you, like me, know finals are a poor test for adequate learning, and a great test for what the lecturer wanted to hear…

    Education is broken, in many places; Not just by the students, but by the teachers and institutions as well. As humans we learn fast; so how is it that after 4 years of high school most students still can’t speak the basics of another language? How is it that primary kids are still taught ‘fonetic’ spelling when there are better systems available? How come if you are doing a science experiment and don’t get the same results as in the lab guide, you’re wrong, rather than making a new discovery?

    There is much to do to rectify the problems. Thankfully, there are many of us already out there doing it…



  20. Hi Tim,

    Just to tell you that your book has been read also in Italy 🙂

    Your chapters about the Pareto theory and the problem of the multy tasking active during the work life, have saved me from my daily job. I’m an “office lady” ;-), and the the strucutre of the italian company are different from the international one. I’m trying to adapt your suggest to our standard also because I’m finally changing my job! my new company should be more modern and international then the old one.

    Many thanks.



  21. Well I want to say that I completely understand the sentiment behind banning laptops in class, but I also find them to be essential for some classes. Not necessarily by content, but rather how that content is distributed. I had a global studies class in which the professor would show power point slides with a large amount of info for a short amount of time, and everyone who was writing these by hand never ever finished writing it in their notebook. Once I started bringing my laptop to class, I managed to write down everything by virtue of being able to type faster than I can write. I did a little bit of IMing here and there, and sure I surfed before class started, but I brought it with a purpose: to make sure I could get all the notes typed. And it worked.

    I love writing my notes out, I really do, but some times it is just impossible. When we confronted the professor and told him he goes too fast, and asked if he could send out the slides since we didn’t get all of it, he simply replied that he would not do that because less people would come to class.

    It seems to me that students are not the only ones to blame, as professors are not willing to change their behavior to benefit the students. Students therefore adapt by bringing laptops, and if they are banned in a course such as mine I think performance may go down. The concepts themself are hard enough, but when we don’t have enough time to adequately write down all the notes, how can we be expected to learn the material fully?

  22. Great post as usual Tim !

    Multitasking is seen as a sing of great performance : “i’m doing several things so i’m more powerful than you, only doing one thing at a time”.

    The idea that multitasking is bad is quite new (at least for me) and i totaly agree with that.

    It’s a matter of personnal efficiency : if someone doesn’t realize that he became less efficient while multitasking, you can’t do nothing for him.

    How would you adress interruption ? Is that really far from the side effects of multitasking ?

  23. How about the fact that this is just plain rude?

    As parents, we shouldn’t even have to ask our kids to put away their cellphones at the dinner table, to stop the texting for 10 minutes so that they can open a generous present from their grandparents, that they can remove their I-pod earbobs and focus on the conversation, that they don’t try texting while driving — two h.s. seniors were killed in a rollover here because the driver was texting, and that they can darn well shop on their own time. Yet all of this, I have had to do. WTF!

    I don’t care at this point if it makes me seem like the squarest, meanest old battleaxe on earth. Rude is rude, people. Knock it off!

    End of rant. 🙂

  24. As a graduating super senior I can echo your experience with laptops in many of my own classes. But I look at it like I would any work environment. It should be a ROWE. Students shouldn’t have to be subjected to attending every monotonous lecture (“work meeting”), and grades should be based solely off performance. Some professors have taken advantage of the power of iTunes by making their lectures and notes available online, but sadly many are still stuck in the old mentality that student’s have to be present in their class to learn.

    Bottom line is that many teachers are a waste of my very valuable time and I feel like I shouldn’t be chained to the seat in front of some professors pulpit when in reality they probably shouldn’t even be teaching. Respect is something that is earned not commanded.

  25. This professor Dalton, based on what the post says about the content of his class (“For 39 years, Professor Dalton has been inspiring Columbia and Barnard students with his two semester political theory series that introduces undergrads to the ideas of Gandhi, Thoreau, Mill, Malcolm X, King, Plato, Lao Tzu.”) sounds like a typical leftist professor lecturing students on the evils of Western civilization, and white people in particular. Is it any wonder students don’t want to listen to indoctrination? They’re getting a whole lot more out of ignoring him and checking their email. I don’t think you could pay me enough to sit through one of his lectures, and evidently his students feel the same.

  26. Thanks to all of you for the powerful responses. I want to address a couple of the issues raised. We obviously live in a world that bombards us with information, and we feel the need to respond to stimulus as it comes in. The problem with this is that we get stretched along the superficial outer layers of many things. I believe in depth over breadth in the learning process. Let’s say we have three skills to learn. The typical approach is to take them all on at once. It is much more effective to plunge deeply into one, touch Quality, and then transfer that feeling of Quality over to the others. A martial artist, for example, should internalize one technique very deeply instead of trying to learn 10 or 15 superficially. This approach engages the unconscious, creative aspects of our minds, and we start making thematic connections which greatly accelerate growth. It is also important to point out that deep presence is required for a state of neural plasticity to be triggered–our brain does not re-map effectively when we are skipping along the surface.

    As for Jose’s question–“How do you remain focused all the time?”—you don’t. It’s useful to build triggers for the zone, so you can slip into it at will. Then, once we know we can attain a state of intense concentration, we are free to let it go and recover. I learned this lesson in my late teens/early twenties trying to stay concentrated for 8 hours a day, two weeks at a time in world chess championships—I would burn out. When I started taking mini breaks, my endurance and quality of focus surged. Stress and recovery should be our rhythms, and physical interval training can be an excellent tool for improving mental recovery. One of many problems with multi-tasking is that the frenetic skipping leaves little room for relaxation, and thus our reservoir for energetic presence is constantly depleted.

  27. In my study of marital arts when we were taught to deal with multiple opponents what appeared at first to be similtanious strikes being delivered to more than one opponent was actually the intense focus on one opponent followed by a fluid redirection of full attention to another opponent. To attempt to give focus to more than one action at the same time resulted in making both actions imuch less effective. The same applies to people who multi-task in other areas of life (substitute doing homework while watching TV or making a phone call while navigating through the internet for multilple opponents). Multi-tasking does not equate to increased productivity, but rather in lower quality productivity. I try to maximize my effectivness and the quality of everything I do by staying focused exclusively on one thing at a time. In the world we live in where we are constantly bombarded with attempts to gain control of our attention, this is an essential form of self defense.

  28. This multitasking stuff just amazes me, I used to think I could do it all at once, but just found out every gets done at a slower pace of at a lower level of effectiveness.

    Funny thing, I just started a new job a month or so ago, home office based (I have found the home office thing to be a blessing AND a curse, especially if you need to be around more people).

    They’ve got me connected with a landline, cellphone/blackberry, laptop into the intranet, BUT they (or my sr mgr) asked me to install skype (not for the long distance savings) so that ‘the team’ could use the feature of being available to know or quick connect instead of an email/tel call. They said it removed the hurdles to communication impasses (you know when “Jim or Jill” is available, for those quick questions that just need to be answered now…)

    I attempted to explain that an environment where constant interruption occurs often time means that work takes longer, that by checking my emails or voicemails a few times a day (along with picking up urgent calls as they come in; eg. mgmts/customer’s) would make me much more efficient.

    So, I’ve installed it and will work with it, but I do find it an inefficient way to ensure connectivity and thoroughness of work.

    YMMV, but…

  29. is it possible that unfortunately many people don’t realize the value of what they are receiving until it is too late? I feel in some ways that undergrad material is wasted on those in undergrad,…..maybe there should be a two year required get the heck out of the U.S. and do service work period before we move on in this country. then that lecture would take on a whole new level of poignancy.

  30. Multitasking is passe.

    I used to do the same thing back in my college computer courses–surf sports and theology websites, simply because I could.

    I’ve since found that single-focused, laser-like attention to the task at hand is the most effective way of knocking a task out quickly and excellently.

  31. To those who say that the problem is boring lectures:

    Lectures have ALWAYS been boring. Sure there are some really exceptional teachers who can entertain, but they are sadly few and far between.

    My son is a freshman in college right now and doing poorly. I know it’s because he lets himself get distracted by text messages and surfing during class. He recently failed rocks for jocks. He’s a smart kid, he could not have failed without serious abuse of his class time. (He claims he didn’t miss any classes).

    Surfing and texting during class is a show of utter disrespect. Teachers should simply remove students from the lecture who do otherwise, then make sure the lecture material is on the test.

    If the students don’t want to be in the class, they should not have registered for it.


  32. A professor of mine passed away less than a year ago. At the time I attended, IU was ranked #1 party school in the country, yet this professor commanded a full lecture hall of students at 8:00 AM twice per week. No one surfed the web. No one slept.

    I think Mr. Dalton’s problem may not be his content or the number of laptops in the room.

  33. I can see this problem with my baby brother who is 10 years my junior. He’s always ‘on’. If I’m not mistaken, he writes entire blog posts and responds to IM’s, text messages & facebook messages while in class. I’m sure he would be a genius without the distractions, because he still ‘seems’ pretty advanced for an 18 year old who had previously struggled in school.

    I believe another factor, apart from technology, that influences this behavior is our high-speed society. Most employers are still trying to drain every last ounce of productivity, including time-wasting work and meetings, out of every employee.

    Younger folks can’t help but to see what their parents and older mentors are going through and think they need to step up or they’re not going to survive in the real world. The older folks don’t realize they’re being sucked in to this insane lifestyle. Then, they don’t have the time to rationalize or get back to the basics with their kids.

    Looking forward to the next post, Tim.

    Take care,


  34. I can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. How could you go to class and surf the internet at the same time?

    The students are there to learn. The are robbing themselves of their education, and their lack of common curtsy to a respected educator is sad and appalling.

  35. I can’t wait to read part 2. I work at a large public university. We were shown this student-made video at a recent student affairs meeting:

    I felt sick afterward. I think we were supposed to feel sorry for today’s students, but instead I felt anger and frustration at their stupidity and ingratitude. They have a choice not to be online 4 hours a day, or texting 100x/day, instead of reading and learning and improving their lives.

    I think of myself as an “alternative lifestyle” Gen-Xer and yet I found myself looking with disbelieving disdain at “these kids today.” Blech!

  36. I find it interesting – and a little disheartening, actually – that a blog post about multitasking generated a couple of responses about the so-called “evils” of post-secondary education and how dull it can be.

    Maybe post-secondary education is leftist or rightist or elitist or populist. I don’t know, my university education was a long time ago and much has changed. (Besides, young people coming of age in a modern world are entitled to a different view of the world that isn’t filtered through right-wing mouthpieces like the White House or Fox News, aren’t they? But I digress…)

    Unless I miss my guess, I think the point had more to do with the way our brains can only work on very few things at once, and that the current fad of multi-tasking actually causes more problems than it solves.

    All you have to do to see this in action is to watch someone driving with a cellphone in one hand, a cup of coffee in another, putting on makeup and trying to manage two-and-a-half tons of glass and steel at speed, all at the same time.

    The point is that multi-tasking simply doesn’t work. A CNN Business article (here: outlines the details of why multi-tasking is counterproductive, but my grandfather knew that years ago. “Do one thing at a time, do it well, then move on.” And he was right.

    But in our hurry to do more and more with less and less, we seem to have become slaves to a myth; that multi-tasking is somehow more efficient and effective than taking the time to do things right. There’s always time to do something over, apparently, but there’s rarely time to do it right in the first place.

    There’s a wonderful story of an operating room nurse who says to the doctor as he’s about to slice into the brain of a patient, “Doctor, if you don’t get this accomplished in three minutes, the patient will die.

    You’d better slow down.”

  37. I have a crush on Josh now 😉 Wow you are a very interesting man Josh and can’t wait to learn more about you and Your art of learning.

    Learning is great when you become fully engrossed. Hey if kids can do it for video games they can do it for learning anything.

    I remember when I was in elementary school a blessing came to me. I had poor eyesight and no money. This was a blessing because I could sit in front row and really have tunnel vision with listening and writing down what we were learning. That helped me soak up everything. When I hit high school socializing became the sport of choice it became harder to focus when I wanted too. Chatting with your neighbor was the sin of the day and even though I was still tried to be focused, life and social antics were priorities. I can’t imagine how kids are learning these days with laptops and cell phones. School, minus potty breaks and emergencies should have stringent rules as to what is allowed. Threats of being sued by parents who think they are entitled to call or text their children at a moments notice make educators feel helpless. Oye time 100!

    I can’t wait for part deux and will get your book from the library stat!



  38. It’s a heartbreaking trend, yet students not paying attention in class is nothing new. Personally, I spent a year backpacking around Europe before beginning college and found by the time I started, I was ready to take it seriously. Or was it because I paid for it all myself by waiting tables?

    We have such an extended childhood in this country. I’d love to see students required to do service learning projects in the developing world (or any place with great need) to be able to get accepted into college. A gap year project that exposed students after high school to more than their little bubble would go a long way towards improving appreciation for a college education!

    It’s a pipe dream, i realize.

  39. I agree that multitasking is bad idea, because frankly you don’t really learn anything without proper focus. Learning requires laser-like focus period. I also want to say that the way most professors lecture, causes students to just space out and lose focus.

    It is one thing to limit the use of computers in the classroom, it is another thing to make the lecture more engaging and less like trivia. It seems to me that the majority of professors never bother asking themselves “What is the point of this thing I’m teaching and how is applicable today”

    If they can get a good answer to that, then they can make lectures much more interesting and engaging.

  40. This is the post I have been waiting for. Ever since coming across the 4HWW I have been intrigued by Tim’s statement that, and I paraphrase, ‘the common characteristic of the people with the highest output and most free time is that they single-task’. I have often wondered how one might train at increasing single-tasking and reduce the accursed multi-tasking.

    I hope that the next post in this series might address this. I’d be intrigued to hear what others do to train at single-tasking, or tactics they use to force themselves to single-task. I am fairly sure single-tasking is a skill like any other that can be learned an improved.

    Keep up the good work.

  41. We trick ourselves into thinking that we are doing more. Even computers slow down while running different apps. I constantly find myself pulling up another tab while waiting for the first to finish.

  42. It all comes down to “less is more”. Multi-tasking is never as efficient as focusing 100% on one task at a time.

    I hadn’t heard of Josh before. Can’t wait to read part 2!

  43. Kudos for releasing a great article that spurred me to take my thoughts out of Covey’s urgent/important zone into a more foundational and strategic state of mind.

    There are two other key elements to focused thinking: 1) What you focus on, and 2) the passion behind that focused thinking.

    Perhaps a good start in revamping our educational system is using the basic needs we all share as the initial focal point (e.g. health, finances and family/friends/relationships, spirit/emotions and growth).

    Then, use the same tools to satisfy those basic needs (perhaps with slight modification) to go after our wants (dreams) that are fueled with passion and desire.

  44. Maybe people are tired of hearing about Ghandi.

    Would the reaction have been different if Barack Obama was speaking on Change? Not that I’m a Obama fan, but perhaps multi-tasking was just a reaction to real boredom. Maybe the professor was retiring because his teaching was no longer relevant or he could not connect with his audience.

  45. I am a teacher at a tertiary level institution in New Zealand. We have a similar problem in our classes. In my case it is even worse because I teach IT and we need the computers in our classroomsI am a teacher at a tertiary level institution in New Zealand. We have a similar problem in our classes. In my case it is even worse because I teach IT and we need the computers in our classrooms. 50% of the class plays games, checking emails, etc, during “practicals”, 80% if it is a lecture.

    I was a student in Argentina not long ago. State universities are free, but since Argentina is a third world country the resources are limited. Therefore, in general, you don’t have computers on the classroom. Students are more focussed.

    It is common practise for many teachers in the institute I work to ask their students to have their computers off.

    It is very very very annoying to have a student playing video games while you are on the front demonstrating or explaining something. And believe me, I don’t use the traditional “lecturing” style.

  46. Hi Tim,

    Quite surprised that checking an email is the equivalent of not sleeping for 36 hours! Where does that statistic come from?



  47. Hey, Tim et al.–> Looks like nobody has linked to this article on Inside Higher Ed, reporting on the fact that the University of Chicago Law School has banned laptop use in the classroom, and not just by rule, either. They’ve actually shut down the WAPs nearby. And when a famously free market place like that does it, there is something real going on.

  48. I hear the argument for multi-tasking everyday in my coaching. In 5 years I have never seen anyone prove that they can be more effective through multi-tasking. I have seen people save 20 hours a week by choosing to focus on one task at time. This means you consciously choose only one task and you create an environment to help you focus on that task. If you are on the computer close the applications you don’t need. Move any paperwork that is not relevant to the current task. I suggest you try it. That’s what I say to my clients — try this and compare it with multi-tasking. Every person who has tried it tells me that they are more effective with a single task focus.

  49. In regard to the martial arts post — dealing with multiple opponents (or even one) requires training. I am not convinced that multitasking in the classroom is evil. Maybe attention requires training? Maybe the class as a whole needs to adopt norms and protocols about appropriate times and uses for laptops? I have compiled resoures about attention and multitasking, especially in the classroom, at — I welcome suggestions for other resources.

    I’ve been experimenting with attention training — or at least elementary mindfulness — in classrooms. Here are two videos:

    There ARE great lecturers that can hold attention for an hour. But why not put them online and spend face to face time to do the kind of discussion that best happens face to face? I’m reorienting my curriculum toward face-to-face collaborative inquiry, student led, but guided by me, that includes some attention to where we are putting our attention, and some work on when and how to keep laptops open in class.

  50. Timothy Ferris,

    Hi, I am from the Caribbean island of Montserrat which has a population of only Five thousand people. Your book seems to be geared towards US citizens only. DO you think the principles can be used internationally??


  51. Having taught at both high school and college levels, been an Army officer for over 17 years, I have witnessed the increase in laptops in the classroom. I am also intimately familiar with multitasking, thanks to the military environment and culture. While I agree the students might be bored, they have the responsibility to do something about their own education and engage themselves. Here’s a professor who can offer them incredible pieces of knowledge and they sit there, ignoring him. How about asking a question? How about trying to tie concepts together? At the college level, it is not the professor’s responsibility to get the students motivated – that exists in high school. I won’t comment on the content of the course, save to say that I wish I had had a course like that. Leftist or not, that is how the rest of the world operates, whether we choose to recognize that or no. “Know thy enemy, know thyself.” It’s real simple.

    Multitasking. Often I find myself just writing everything down, deciding (or asking the commander) which of the items is the priority item and going in order. At times, I hand parts and pieces of items to subordinates to buy myself time to concentrate on one thing. Ultimately, it must boil down to the one most important thing, whatever that might be. True enough that in life we are often faced with the need to get many things done at once. Some of that’s a result of poor planning, sometimes it isn’t. I always return to the “priority item” whatever that is. Make some hard choices, and drive on!

  52. I am a small business owner and love the travel life and miss it.

    I went to Europe to teach a little child English and had the time of my life.

    I am really close to family here in the US and I am not 100% happy with my lifestyle I am living.

    I have read the 4hour work week and can see this working for me if I could have Tim give me a little one on one insight.

    He will be in LA and I would love if I could meet him for lunch or dinner or just a half hour so he could offer some of his driving advice.

    I indulge in his lifestyle and I would love to do all he has done by the time I was his age.

    I am going to be 28 this year and fell unfullfilled with my store.

    I am just new into my new store location, but have a burning desire to travel the world and do all I can do while I am still able to do it.

  53. First: no one here is really talking about multi-tasking, but about serial-tasking. They are completely different things with completely different sets of demands and concerns.

    Second, why are so many people who see a roomful of disengaged students willing to immediately blame the students and then technology? What about the teacher? What about a learning environment being fostered where a student can get away with that kind of behavior? Maybe if there were less droning lecturing and less kill and drill style teaching there could be more authentic engagement, interaction, and collaboration. Maybe there could be an environment in which not paying attention becomes an obvious detriment. But no, let’s blame the kids these days with their newfangled dig-uh-tul technologies.

    Third, there is a lot of work going on into how to make positive, productive use of the “backchannel” to provide a valuable second stream of discussion and interaction. No one focuses on content 100% of the time. Attention is given in natural micro-cycles. While I have no problem with training attention, there is also much to be said for giving ways to make use of those natural ebbs and flows.

    After all, I was perfectly capable of tuning out my teachers long before there was any technology to do so. Technology isn’t causing the problem… some of the uses are a symptom (sometimes).

  54. Josh mentions Professor Dennis Dalton and I want everyone to know that there is an excellent video of Professor Dalton available through The Teaching Company ( The video is titled “Power Over People: Classical and Modern Political Theory”. Anyone interested in political theory should get it. The series has an historical aspect and each lecture (16 in all) explores a different theorist. Plus Professor Dalton has such an engaging style that I can hardly believe anyone could multi task during one of his lectures.

  55. The students obviously have an energy, some to learn, some to network, nevertheless, it is the challenge for future educators on how to channel that energy into a positive direction.

  56. It ultimately comes down to the individual, some are better tham others at multitasking. I am terrible at it hehehe, sometimes I will get caught up at work doing too many things at once and I simply forget about most of them. Colleagues are like – “have you don’t that yet” and I’m like – “D’oh” thinking that I’ve done everything I needed to. lol

  57. Multitasking is unproductive and increases your stress level. Don’t juggle too many balls at the same time just focus at one thing at a time as a result you get things done.

  58. I was searching for the name of Dennis Dalton and stumbled upon this post you made 12 yrs ago. I really enjoyed this post. The warning sent out, aptly describing the dangers of multi-tasking and the trickling of technology and it’s apps into the classroom. But what I enjoyed was your comments about Prof. Dennis Dalton. I never had him as a professor. If I had I probably would have stayed in college and earned a degree. How I met him was through The Great Courses. I borrowed the series “Power Over People” and that led me to more of his teachings. I am most grateful for my personal small collection of his lectures. I so wish I could share him telling the “Allegory of the Cave” story on FB. It is badly needed, in my opinion.

    I had the great pleasure of meeting Dennis at “Powell’s Bookstore” in Portland in 2011 when he just moved there to be closer to family out west. I picked him out of the crowd after hearing him ask a question of the author of a book who was speaking there. It was such an honor to meet him and thank him for his lectures.

    Be well!