I was gripped by the podcast of prof. dr. Paul A. Kirschner. Kirschner has an impressive CV. Among other things, he researches (learning) mechanisms of learners in interaction with the learning environment. From this background Kirschner asks the question: can we multitask?

You are not a computer

The past few weeks I have been gripped by the podcasts of the University of the Netherlands. A wide variety of subjects are presented to you by various top scientists. They try to inspire the audience and the listener at home weekly through their lectures, answering a wide range of questions. As they say themselves: from dark matter to animal love: everything passes by. On my way to Amsterdam on the train I started another podcast. I often try to don’t look at the title and like to be surprised. This time by prof. dr. Paul A. Kirschner. Kirschner has an impressive resume. Among other things, he researches (learning) mechanisms of learners in interaction with the learning environment. From this background Kirschner asks the audience a question: can we multitask?


During your student days, and certainly in your working life, you probably ran into it. You focus on a subject, may be distracted by a colleague or housemate, at the same time you catch a conversation about which you have an opinion, and finally you get an app from home or you get to eat along tonight. The latter usually results in a discussion about who will do the shopping. 30 minutes + a shopping list later you have no idea what you had started with. Recognisable?


And yet we often say that we can multitask, that we want to take up multiple projects at the same time and that we are really good at them and get energy from them. The audience answers the question of the professor in agreement. But nothing could be further from the truth. People cannot multitask. Not the man, not the woman, not the digital native and not the Elon Musk either. Man is not a computer. We only have one processor, our brain. Kirschner describes multitasking in humans as task switching. Every time we choose a task and switch to another activity, we pay a fine, the so-called switching penalty. Each time you start your task again, and switch to another topic or schedule, you pay that fine. Added up, this means that you lose time and more mistakes are made.

To clarify the switching penalty, Kirschner brings us social media used on stage. We, the human, are awake about 18 hours a day and in that time we watch 221!! times on our phone! The research asks us to learn a text by heart. This takes about 5 minutes. But, if one is disturbed, for example by an app, it takes 9 minutes to learn the same text at the same level.

Even more striking: according to American research, using your phone in the car results in more accidents than when people take the same route with a sip.  When asked what colour the girl’s coat was along the road, the drunken driver answered: red and the multitasker: which girl?


Nobody can multitask! We decrease the pace of learning from it, miss a lot of what is happening around us and our concentration decreases drastically. Even if you just look at a pop-up on your screen, or answer that one question of your colleague, the task you started with takes almost twice as long to complete at a good level. Unless you have automated processes! Then you can do multiple things at the same time! But if so, I hope you will give me a call because you are not challenged enough in your current position!

While writing this piece I probably looked at my phone 18 times. Besides that, web whatsapp was open and I answered mails. Did I learn anything from it? I’m going to try it anyway! Finally, a free tip, from me, for you! Go study in a place where not all your friends are. We now know that even if you’re so strong that you don’t want to come along for the 3rd time in an hour for a cup of coffee, you’re still studying almost twice as long!


Written by Eelco Straathof

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