Pay Attention!

What are you actually accomplishing when you’re doing five things at once?? Maybe not as much as you think.? Scientists have found that “self-described multitaskers performed much worse on cognitive and memory tasks that involved distraction than did people who said they preferred to focus on single tasks.”? Their research, along with other research on memory and learning, is profiled in The Chronicle of Higher Education. The researchers profiled believe that the best learning comes from single-minded attention: one professor even forbids his students from taking notes in class. (HT: Marginal Revolution) [%comments]


I no longer have any choice but to pay attention. The ol' neurons don't fire as rapidly any longer.

Steve Nations

My hat's off to the prof who forbids taking notes. I scribbled my way through plenty of classes as a mechanical engineering student and often got the feeling that I was too busy writing to really listen and try to comprehend.


I've found taking notes helps me concentrate on what's being said.


Is this necessarily the best comparison? I'm not surprised multitaskers do a worse job filtering out distractions, but for people whose second (or third, or fourth, etc.) task is something productive, it's entirely possible that solving the two simultaneously is quicker than solving them serially.

In short: in this study there was a "distraction," but in the real world, the second or third task is productive.


Multitasking helps me complete tasks when the task at hand is too boring to complete without a distraction. Eg. music or a movie while doing manual-labor, cleaning, or routine coding tasks makes it possible for me to keep up my motivation and/or not fall asleep (especially when coding).

If the task requires any degree of intelligent thought or learning though, I like quiet.


Students of mindfulness, especially Buddhists, have been talking about this for several millenia. Glad to see there is modern scientific evidence against multitasking as well.

Joe D

In one of my first classes in grad school (abstract algebra), the professor talked and wrote on an overhead projector with a roll (cerebral palsy prevented his using the blackboard). So I got together with two other students: one wrote what the prof wrote, one wrote what he said, and the other simply listened and read intently (we rotated the jobs). Afterwards, we'd debrief and share what we had. It turned out to be an excellent system.


I agree about note-taking in general. As an undergraduate I had to sit through Art History and Music History at Santa Barbara. Sitting was about all I contributed and my grades proved it but over 40 years later I remember more of that information than any other undergraduate course. Conversely, in the doctoral program at UCLA our econometrics course was taught the old-fahioned way, all in matrix algebra w/out benefit of software packages that did it for you. I took such copious notes that I had a complete teaching prep when it was over and I was able to refer to those notes for years.

Ian Tindale

I used to pay attention but nowadays it's free.


You might be interested in the Study Hacks blog. The blog posits that impressive achievements come from diligent focus on one specialty, even if the effort that goes into that specialty is less than what is typically invested in multiple activities.


Sometimes, depending on the speaker, if I don't take notes, I fall asleep! I was never a multi-tasker, and I wouldnt call that multi-tasking really.


I multitask because otherwise I feel under stimulated. Perhaps those who are easily distracted find themselves multitasking. Distractibility leads to multitasking rather than multitasking leading to distractibility.

Ahh why am I distracted writing this comment!


In the internet age, the next logical step is to make note taking unnecessary by posting detailed notes online on a weekly basis so that students can stop scribbling and start thinking. If they need the process of writing things out as well (which is a useful activity) they can just copy out the note from the online posting.

tony Sullivan

All editors of FREAKONOMICS:
When you get chance, would you please confirm this.

Are you willing and ready to challenging (false) conventional wisdom?
Am I wrong that based upon following data that most Americans are NOT middle class
but working poor under class?
1st: Approximately 48 percent of households, or 73 million people, owe no federal income tax, according to new research by a non-partisan think tank.
A number of working Americans even gets money from the government - despite not paying a penny in taxes - because they qualify for income-tax breaks.
The number of non-taxpaying Americans continues to grow since 1994.
2nd. US consumers owe nearly $2.7 trillion
American consumers owed a grand total of $2.6773 trillion in October 2008, according to the latest statistics on consumer credit from the Federal Reserve. That's about $39,654 per household, a figure that doesn't include mortgage debt.



Uh, no notes? I suppose that would be fine if it was Story Time, but with a lecture, you've got to jot all the main points down rather than rely on your memory. Unless the instructor provides his own set of detailed notes to the class, then it's all good.


I'm not at all surprised by this study. I have found over and over in college that paying attention in class and taking notes with moderate review/ studying works so much better than going to class with your laptop/sudoku not paying attention and cramming for exams. I don't understand why people go to college classes that don't take attendance just to surf the web and half pay attention.

Same thing with writing. When I was in high school I would write papers while listening to music. Now in college I just can't do it, I need to concentrate as much as I can on the paper so its Philip Glass or Steve Reich in the background or the music is off. And it has worked out extremely well for me.

Christopher Strom

Back when I was a kid, there was no such thing as "multitasking". People who tried to do many things at once either "lacked focus" or were "easily distracted".

Funny how a buzzword can turn what was considered a flaw into a virtue...

And I'm not the least bit surprised that those who multitask believe that they are far more effective than they actually are:

I am reminded of a Cornell study from 2000 on aptitude and perception of ability that showed a strong link between the ability to perform a task and the ability to assess one's own ability to perform the task. One of the side effects of this perception is that a person who does a thing badly is usually supremely confident of his ability.

Eric M. Jones

The bricks and mortar are falling down. It's a revolution but without an earthquake.

I suggest video-recording the lectures and them replaying them. FF through the mindless, inane, boring stuff, and replay the key educational moments many times. Email in the test.

In my short stint as a teacher I spent WAY too many hours on the Internets to get good stuff for my students. I began to suspect I was superfluous.


Or as my boss observed the other day, "Today's multi-tasker is yesterday's scatterbrain."

Robby D

Hey Joe D,

"Afterwards, we'd debrief and share what we had. It turned out to be an excellent system."

It is a **fabulous** system, and it's the kind of thing teachers in primary and secondary school classrooms are always trying to get their students to do, because this kind of articulation and discussion works extremely well for making content accessible over a long period of time.

Just thought I'd add this: most people who claim to be "multi-taskers" are actually people who have developed a level of automaticity with certain routine tasks and can do them at the same time. Often they are only actually "paying attention" to one thing at a time.

Hence, if you take notes as a matter of course, without distracting yourself, it will help you recall the information, but that is because note-taking has become an automatic skill for you.