Is Multitasking Worth All The Attention?

octupus momIt has been hot for quite a while and women have been especially proud that they seem to be better at multitasking than men. But is what we call multitasking really multitasking? Disheartening as it may appear to those proud of their multitasking abilities — no. Scientifically speaking, multitasking involves doing several things at once AND doing them as well as you would if you were doing them on their own. Decades of psychological research have shown that the predominant majority of the population is incapable of true multitasking.

Most studies have looked into what’s probably the clearest example of failed multitasking, talking on the phone — or doing something else like listening to instructions — and driving. Invariably, for a portion of well over 90% of participants in such studies performance worsened and increased their risk of having an accident, hands-free or no hands-free. But it seems that there is a very small number of people, around 2%, who can not only multitask but get better as they do more things. One of the researchers who have dedicated their time to studying multitasking, David Strayer, calls them supertaskers and is now set on discovering what is it that makes these people able to solve math problems and memorize words while driving, doing all three things impeccably. Oh, and by the way, in the studies so far there doesn’t seem to be a link between gender and supertasking.

So, what we’ve been thinking of as multitasking is in fact doing several things in a quick succession, switching between them as needed. Now, that is something that moms and not just moms are very familiar with. It does seem at some point that you’re doing ten things at once, but, say scientists, what you are actually doing is switching your attention from task to task and, here comes the surprise, it’s not worth it and it can even be bad for you.

One author on multitasking, Guy Winch, explains that task switching wastes productivity, pure and simple. The energy and time you spend on switching slow you down and break your concentration, and that happens every single time you switch between tasks. In other words, if you can’t focus fully on any one task that you’re doing, chances are you won’t do any of them well. It follows logically from this that multitasking does the opposite of saving time. One study from the University of Utah, for instance, found that drivers who were talking on the phone got to their destinations more slowly. If you’re trying to finish two different projects by switching between them, rather than doing them one after the other, you’ll need more time and, what’s worse, you’ll be likely to make more mistakes because of your divided attention.

Then, of course, there’s the stress. Although the human brain can handle two complex tasks at the same time, if a third appears, things go downhill. Multitasking as a physical process is taxing for the nervous system, all the more so because we don’t usually multitask out of desire, but out of necessity. Add to this the heightened risk of failure and you have yourself a very simple recipe for disaster. So, don’t multitask, but do things one by one, giving them your full attention, saving time and keeping stress-free.