BackTalk: Metatasking vs. Multitasking

By Devin Zimmerman

During a recent episode of National Public Radio's The Infinite Mind, I was a little surprised to hear experts speak out against “multitasking” and its tendency to decrease quality and, in some cases, produce disastrous, even fatal consequences, such as car accidents.

It seems to me we're inundated with the opposite message these days: multitasking is just the way it is; technology has made it so, and Millennials love to do it. Of course, it's also said Millennials have short attention spans because of it.

Wider focus

If you're a dedicated multitasker, you're certainly not alone. A 2005 Kaiser Family Foundation report found that 61 percent of respondents said they did any combination of the following most of the time or some of the time while they did their homework: “talk on the phone, instant message, watch TV, listen to music, or surf the web for fun.”

I admit I have a love/hate relationship with multitasking. My personal philosophy, derived from the East, teaches mindfulness, focusing thoroughly and deeply on what I am doing at one time. My lifestyle, however, is rooted in the West, so I like to do lots of things, and I don't have time to do them all. Even as I type this I'm logged in to a couple of IM accounts, my email inbox is open, and I have seven other windows up with various articles, a RefWorks account, and, well, it would just be another task to check what else I'm multitasking.

Focused multitasking

For me, as is often the case, the middle path holds the answer: focused multitasking, or metatasking, as I call it. Metatasking is a process that involves undertaking any number of tasks that ultimately accomplish one primary objective.

As many institutions continue to move toward information commons and collaborative learning models, encouraging metatasking—that is deep, focused multitasking—makes sense. Ignoring or even blocking access to multitasking technologies in favor of a single-task approach in information literacy classes merely tells students that we are either unaware of emerging technologies that can improve learning or that we're obstinately opposed to them.

If you're teaching a student how to use a library database, why not show them how to have, for example, RefWorks open in another window to help organize citations, a word processor open in another to take notes, and perhaps even a chat window available for discussion with others about the articles?

It is true that, without guidance, this kind of multitasking can result in distraction and poor attention to any one task. The key is to step up and offer that guidance, to explain clearly what the central task is and how each piece contributes to accomplishing that central task.


In today's information-rich world, quality is often a function of time and labor. If it's a choice between a great reference book sitting on your shelf that your students can't check out and have to trek all the way across the city or campus to look at vs. something similar they can easily get online, even if it is not as great a resource, we already know which version patrons will choose. The term informavore has been bandied around to describe the role of information-seekers these days. But, in our information-gathering world, it simply makes sense for us to want to accomplish as much as we can and to use the technologies we have available to do so. We all do this in one way or another.

It's wrong to assume automatically that today's metatasking Millennials are unfocused. They're just optimizing. Our students today are often simultaneously burdened with a full course load, jobs, families, personal lives, and more. It shouldn't surprise anyone that they try to get the best results in the least amount of time or with the least amount of effort.

As teachers, however, we must realize that we have some influence over the information-gathering equation, and we can help students make effective choices.

One size does not fit all

Of course, every classroom has a variety of learners and is often different for each user. Personally, I'm a kinesthetic learner. I want to grab and manipulate any device that's in front of me. At a computer, I tend to click on anything and everything to see what happens.

For some students, the single task of searching the catalog can be isolated for demonstration purposes; but for others, taken out of context from the entire research process, it can be confusing. Guiding students deeper into the process requires seeing information literacy from their perspective. From our perspective, however, we should recognize that the tug of war between focusing and yearning to do everything at once is now all too common and will only increase. We must be mindful that library research is rarely, if ever, a linear process. And, as educators, we must embrace what technology hath wrought.

Author Information
Devin Zimmerman is Information Literacy Coordinator, Texas State University, San Marcos.
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