Multitasking is detrimental to how we learn according to two interesting pieces which discuss recent neurological studies of multitasking, in The Atlantis, and in The Atlantic (yes, those are two different magazines). In one study conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a study participant wrote:
"I multitask every single second I am online,” confessed one study participant. “At this very moment I am watching TV, checking my e-mail every two minutes, reading a newsgroup about who shot JFK, burning some music to a CD, and writing this message."
Does this sound like you? It sure sounds like me sometimes (and it's the same way at work, if you replace the JFK newsgroup and TV with reading a science paper, answering email, and doing a Western blot), and personally I think this fragmented way of working leads to a very superficial way of working. Before switching to science, I was a music major in college. In my program, piano performance, I was expected to lock myself in a practice room and work, just me and the piano, for 3-4 hours or more. The ability to do that kind of uninterrupted, focused work was very satisfying, and I miss it in science. The current point in my career - a postdoctoral fellowship - is supposed to be an obligation-free period to focus purely on research. I have no hoops to jump through to get a degree, no obligations to do administrative work or teach courses, yet still my day ends up massively fragmented due to a neverending parade of issues competing for my attention. Neurobiologists are beginning to publish studies on our new habits of mind, and these early experiments suggest that a multi-tasking work style negatively effects how we learn. One researcher, David Meyer at the University of Michigan, found that multitasking is associated with the chronic release of stress hormones - not a good thing. This research is still early, and it's hard to capture the multitasking brain in a lab experiment. But it's enough to suggest that we need to think about how we work. People have always had things competing for their attention, but the difference today is that we think it's a good thing to succumb to the temptation of doing a dozen things superficially, rather than a few things well. As Lord Chesterfield put it in the 1740's (quoted in the Atlantis piece): "There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time."