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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Posted on: May 25, 2008.

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83 comments on “The Multitasking Virus and the End of Learning? Part 1

  1. 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.


  2. 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.


  3. 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??



  4. 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!


  5. 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.


  6. 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).


  7. 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.


  8. 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