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An Update on the Myth of Multitasking

A while back, I blogged about the Myth of Multitasking. Basically, I said that we can’t really do it – we mostly task switch, and this is a very inefficient strategy for working & getting things done. In fact, there is some research to show that those who multitask the most are the worst at it.

It seems so very odd…even ridiculous…that almost everyone tries to multitask nowadays even though we generally stink at it. I try to do a fair share of it myself, so I’m including me here as well. I think one reason is because we fool ourselves into believing that we are actually effective multitaskers. Not too long ago I gave a presentation on “Living a Balanced Life in a Tech World” to hundreds of high school students. As a little experiment, I had everyone close their eyes so I could get a (somewhat) unbiased poll. I asked the students to raise their hands if they thought they were better than the average high school student at multitasking. Probably 80% of the students raised their hands. I then asked how many of them thought they were below average when compared to other high school students at multitasking – maybe 10% of students raised their hands. Now, I’m not a statistician or anything, but I do know that most people cannot be above average! Not to single out high school students – I think most people make this same error. Again, I have to include myself in here because I get sucked into multitasking at times (not like texting and driving though!) even though part of me really knows better.

Some fairly recent research debunks the idea that people can multitask well. Using 200 undergraduates as participants, University of Utah researchers found that 97.5% of them performed worse than baseline (i.e., without multitasking) on a driving simulation when they were asked to perform memorization tasks simultaneously. Interestingly, 2.5% of the participants performed as well or better on the driving simulation when multitasking. These people were dubbed “supertaskers.” The researchers were not sure exactly how or why these supertaskers were able to perform 2 different tasks without experiencing a drop in performance. They hypothesized that the supertaskers were able to more efficiently allocate their cognitive resources than most people. It is possible that supertasking can be learned to some extent. However, it is important to note that these participants were undergraduates and grew up during the Internet/digital age. They have been playing video games, using computers, texting, IMing, using social networks, etc., for as long as they can   remember. And still, only 2.5% of them could actually multitask well.

Some other recent research further elucidates the issue of multitasking. Two neuroscientists at the French biomedical research agency, INSERM, used functional magnetic resonance imaging to view what goes on in the brain when people attempt to multitask. Using thirty-two 19-32 year-olds, the researchers found that the prefrontal cortex is critical in task management. When given two tasks to do, the brain allocates one hemisphere to do each task (well, the left prefrontal cortex coordinating one task and the right prefrontal cortex coordinating the other). When a third task of similar challenge is added, the researchers found that performance suffered considerably. Basically, one task got ignored because the brain ran out of hemispheres to allocate.

So, to summarize:

1. Multitasking is (still) a myth, for the most part. We primarily task switch for complicated tasks, but the degree to which we can truly multitask (doing 2 or more tasks at the exact same time) depends upon the nature of the task and the expertise of the individual at that task. We can’t write a sonnet and calculate pi at the same time. But we can walk, chew gum, and recite our times tables (if we know them well!) at the same time.

2. Just because a person multitasks a lot does not mean he or she is particularly good at it. In fact, people who multitask the most tend to be the worst at it.

3. There is a small percentage (around 2.5%) of people who can apparently multitask on 2 tasks without a significant drop in performance.

4. The brain attempts to multitask on 2 tasks by allocating one hemisphere for each task.

5. When attempting to do 3 (or more) cognitively demanding tasks, the brain runs out of hemispheres to allocate and thus performance suffers markedly.

As technology becomes increasingly integrated within our lives and grows more sophisticated at a break-neck pace, we will need to become more wary of the temptation to multitask. Like the call of the Siren, unless we learn how to avoid it, we might crash our “effectiveness” ships upon the rocks!

1 Comment

  1. Kathy Johansson

    I appreciate what you wrote. I agree. I process things slowly and can not quickly switch between tasks. I think refusing to multi-task is a sign of self-respect. Job ads that say the candidate MUST multi-task in a fast-paced environment repel me, because they demonstrate that the basis of the multi-tasking myth is FINANCIAL. Mostly, it is neither a job skill nor a natural ability.

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