Most people have heard that multitasking is bad for concentration and increases the likelihood of making mistakes. But if we know we make more mistakes when we multitask, why do we still do it? Why do some people proudly report they are good multitaskers? Maybe we like multitasking because it activates the reward centers in the brain and releases the feel-good-neurotransmitter known as dopamine. Also, while people may know that multitasking affects their performance, it appears that they are not fully aware how much it is hurting their work. Let’s explore some of the recent scientific findings on multitasking.
- Multitasking is really task switching
Researchers think of multitasking as actually task switching. We cannot attend to two mental tasks at the same time, so multitasking involves quickly switching attention between tasks. Switching our focus takes time and we make more mistakes when we move between tasks. Research has shown it is more efficient to do things in sets. For example, first pay all your bills, then check your new emails, and then make those phone calls. This idea is especially useful when applied to mail and email. If you want to maximize your productivity, respond, file, or discard mail or emails right after reading them. It will take more time and mental energy to re-read and respond to correspondence later. Do your mental work in discreet batches.
- Multitasking causes us to miss important things in the world
When people multitask, they might also miss out on important details and experiences. One of my mentors, Dr. Ira Hyman, published a paper showing that college students who were using their cell phones while walking across campus were far less likely to see a clown on a unicycle, compared to people who were not using their phones. In fact, 75% of the cell phone users didn’t remember seeing the unicycle-riding clown, even though it had been right in front of them! We miss out on details when we multitask.
- Multitasking could be causing us to become more distractible
Even more worrisome than missing out on details, we might become more mentally distractible if we allow ourselves to automatically respond to the next email, text message, or intrusive thought. We should give sustained focus to one task at a time. Mental discipline and focus are habits that are learned, but distractibility can also be learned.
- The cost of multitasking probably depends on the situation
Based on recent research, there appears to be a trade-off between how demanding tasks are and how much multitasking impairs performance. Have you ever noticed that you can very effectively drive a familiar route or a fairly long distance on an interstate highway while having an in-depth conversation with a passenger and experience no apparent impairment in your conversational abilities nor your driving ability? That is because driving, especially on a familiar route or on less interesting parts of the interstate, isn’t usually cognitively demanding. But try to have the same type of conversation while driving in a congested city or while trying to follow directions to a new place, and you’ll experience problems driving or conversing or both. We just don’t have enough mental resources for two demanding tasks at the same time. But recent research does confirm that we can usually do a cognitive task at the same time as a familiar motor task. For example, we might be able to fold laundry while listening to the news without much of a problem. That is because folding laundry is a motor task that has become automatic and doesn’t require many cognitive resources.
- People who think they are good at multitasking are not
People who think they are good at multi-tasking are, on average, worse at multitasking than people who think they are not so good at it. In a frequently citied 2013 paper, researchers reported that college students who performed better at multitasking reported engaging in less multitasking behavior in their lives. The people who reported more multitasking behaviors also scored higher on impulsivity tests. It is hard to know what comes first, impulsivity or multitasking, but other research and theories suggest they may affect each other. Multitaskers might not exercise sustained attention and thus become worse at staying focused. Also, an inability to stay focused could increase someone’s likelihood of becoming a frequent multitasker.
So it looks like we should heed the advice and strive to do less multitasking and more monotasking, that is, focusing on one cognitive task at a time. Email, texting, and social media are some of the most common attention-zapping tasks. So consider minimizing distractions by doing the following: scheduling email time, turning off text and email notifications on your computer, opening one browser window at a time, and completing tasks one at a time. Consider exercising your abilities to stay focused by practicing meditation, which recent research shows can help improve attention. Most of all, be honest with yourself about your multitasking tendencies, and notice the things that divide your attention and impair your mental performance.