Is Multitasking Good for You?

Is Multitasking Good for You?

Can research tell us whether multitasking is good or bad? Find out everything you need to know about multitasking.

Multitasking is putting your focus on more than one task at once, whether at exactly the same time or through repeatedly switching back and forth between tasks (Waller, 1997). Implied in this definition is that the tasks you are doing are not getting finished one after the other; for example, if I finish several tasks in short succession, I am not multitasking, even though I was working on multiple things.

To understand how multitasking works, two scholars have applied the idea of threaded cognition to our understanding of task completion (Salvucci & Taatgen, 2008). This theory states that we have different cognitive resources, such as vision, motor coordination, and memory, and that we can use just one or multiple of them to accomplish a single task. For example, if you are driving to the house of somebody you have visited just once before, you will probably draw on all three of those resources to accomplish the task.

However, the theory also makes clear that we will find it very difficult to use a certain resource on multiple tasks at once. This suggests that there will be limits on how effective we can be at combining certain tasks.

“Our mind cannot be freed into the present moment while we are caged by the illusion of multitasking.”
― Mokokoma Mokhonoana

Multitasking in the Brain

What’s happening in our brains when we multitask? Without getting too deep into the details, multitasking draws heavily on the brain regions that power our attention and our abilities to self-regulate (Rothbart & Posner, 2015). These are key executive functioning skills that help us resist distractions, stay focused on tasks, and effectively switch between tasks. We know that these brain regions are important for multitasking because damage to these areas impairs people’s ability to multitask (Rothbart & Posner, 2015).

Research also tells us that people who score higher on measures of intelligence are better at multitasking, perhaps because executive functioning skills are a key component of overall intelligence (Colom et al., 2010). An even more important aspect of multitasking ability is one’s working memory capacity – the ability to hold in mind and use information over short periods of time. People with strong working memories are especially effective multitaskers (Colom et al., 2010). That makes a lot of sense to me – if you can remember more about each of the things you’re doing, you will have an easier time transitioning between them and picking back up with the next thing to do.

Pros & Cons of Multitasking

There are upsides and downsides of multitasking. Some believe that practice with multitasking, especially for children, can promote mental flexibility, noting that there are some people who are exceptionally good at multitasking (Watson & Strayer, 2010). And since we interact with the world so often through an onslaught of many different information sources, often arriving simultaneously, some degree of multitasking in our lives is inevitable, so even if it is not the most effective way to get things done, it is an essential ability, and one that can be effective under certain conditions (Courage et al., 2015). For example, in environments that demand quick shifts among different roles and tasks, such as meeting the various demands of a waitstaff role, multitasking can be efficient and effective (Fischer & Plessow, 2015).

At the same time, the larger concern expressed by many psychologists about the long-term effects of engaging in multitasking is that it may diminish our ability to give sustained and deep attention to one thing at a time (e.g., Carr, 2020). In other words, not only are we more error-prone, distractible, and possibly less efficient in completing demanding tasks when multitasking (Carrier et al., 2015), but over time, we may become worse at “single tasking”. 

More Multitasking Facts

Here are some additional facts about multitasking, drawn from the many research studies conducted on the topic.

● First, we know that people whose minds naturally wander more often tend to be less efficient multitaskers (Ralph et al., 2014).

● Second, it may be the case that multitasking can make people more productive, but less accurate in their work (Adler & Benbunan-Fich, 2012).

● Third, although people of all ages tend to multitask in similar ways and at similar times, older generations tend to multitask less than younger generations (Carrier et al., 2009). In fact, the youngest generation is extremely effective at consuming more than one kind of media at the same time – a kind of extreme media multitasking (Rideout et al., 2010).

● Finally, some people are really, really good at multitasking. One study found that about 3% of the population can complete multiple tasks at once without any loss of performance quality, while the other 97% of us perform worse when asked to do the same things simultaneously (Watson & Strayer, 2010).

In Sum

Okay, so multitasking generally makes us less effective at the tasks we’re doing. Maybe you’re not that surprised to hear this. These days, we are trying to do so much with our lives that the temptation to multitask is just too strong to consistently ignore. When you notice you are multitasking while trying to accomplish something important, see if you can slow down and ask yourself whether a certain task deserves your full attention. You might find it more enjoyable and less stressful to release yourself from the pressure to be more efficient and just take things one at a time.

References

● Adler, R. F., & Benbunan-Fich, R. (2012). Juggling on a high wire: Multitasking effects on performance. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies, 70(2), 156-168.

● Carr, N. (2020). The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. WW Norton & Company.

● Carrier, L. M., Cheever, N. A., Rosen, L. D., Benitez, S., & Chang, J. (2009). Multitasking across generations: Multitasking choices and difficulty ratings in three generations of Americans. Computers in Human Behavior, 25(2), 483-489.

● Carrier, L. M., Rosen, L. D., Cheever, N. A., & Lim, A. F. (2015). Causes, effects, and practicalities of everyday multitasking. Developmental Review, 35, 64-78.

● Colom, R., Martínez-Molina, A., Shih, P. C., & Santacreu, J. (2010). Intelligence, working memory, and multitasking performance. Intelligence, 38(6), 543-551.

● Courage, M. L., Bakhtiar, A., Fitzpatrick, C., Kenny, S., & Brandeau, K. (2015). Growing up multitasking: The costs and benefits for cognitive development. Developmental Review, 35, 5-41.

● Fischer, R., & Plessow, F. (2015). Efficient multitasking: parallel versus serial processing of multiple tasks. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1366.

● Ralph, B. C., Thomson, D. R., Cheyne, J. A., & Smilek, D. (2014). Media multitasking and failures of attention in everyday life. Psychological Research, 78(5), 661-669.

● Rideout, V. J., Foehr, U. G., & Roberts, D. F. (2010). Generation M2: Media in the lives of 8-to 18-year-olds. Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

● Rothbart, M. K., & Posner, M. I. (2015). The developing brain in a multitasking world. Developmental Review, 35, 42-63.

● Salvucci, D. D., & Taatgen, N. A. (2008). Threaded cognition: an integrated theory of concurrent multitasking. Psychological Review, 115(1), 101.

● Waller, M. J. (1997). Keeping the pins in the air: How work groups juggle multiple tasks. In M. M. Beyerlein & D. A. Johnson (Eds.), Advances in interdisciplinary studies of work teams (Vol. 4, pp. 217–247). Stamford, CT: JAI Press.

● Watson, J. M., & Strayer, D. L. (2010). Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17(4), 479-485