The Myth of Multitasking…

This commercial is excellent, even if the point of it is to sell you a device that will likely lead to exactly the type of behavior being parodied. The scene where the guy drops his cell phone in the urinal was perhaps my favorite part of the video, but that is because I used to see that guy every day in my former job. In my previous job I was a lab manager for a drug research lab at a large University. There was a post-doc in another lab who spent the majority of his waking hours talking on his cell phone (from what I could tell), even when using the bathroom on our floor. He would go about his business with his phone tucked between his ear and shoulder, chatting away regardless of what type of business he was there to conduct, if you catch my drift. Oh, how I longed to hear that phone go “splash”, but sadly I was never witness to such a glorious event.

Anyhow, such stories are all too common these days. How many of you have ever come close to being hit by a driver who was paying more attention to his or her phone than to actually driving? We text while walking, talking, biking and driving. We listen to music while talking on the phone and reading the news. We play games on our smartphones while spending “quality time” with our children or having “family dinner”. We spend class time checking Facebook, responding to texts, or checking email (if you are old enough that you still use email). The idea that we are a society of multitaskers is pervasive. We think nothing of managing multiple tasks at the same time, dividing our attention between activities that stand in stark contrast to one another, and we take pride in our supposed ability to do so. I say “supposed” because the truth of the matter is that human multitasking is a myth.

The activity that we like to refer to as “multitasking” is somewhat of a misnomer because what we are doing is not simultaneously engaging in multiple tasks. Instead, we are dividing our attention and engaging in behavior that is known as “task-switching“, which is exactly what it sounds like. We change our focus from one activity to another, attempting to monitor various sources of information and process our responses to it. You might say: “Fair enough…then I am really good at task-switching.” Unfortunately, that is not the case either. “No, seriously. I check Facebook all the time during class because class is totally boring, but I do just fine.” Now that I have returned to a classroom setting, I suspect there are a lot of students who probably think that is true. I would suggest, however, that if you are doing well in a class when you hardly pay attention, then it is more likely that you are doing well in spite of your actions, and certainly not because of them.

There have been countless studies over the years that examine how people interact with technology, and how these interactions affect our performance in a wide range of activities. This research has been fairly consistent in demonstrating that our ability to process information is limited, and insufficient for carrying out multiple tasks simultaneously or responding to multiple sources of stimuli. An article from 2012 entitled “No A 4 U: The relationship between multitasking and academic performance” found that regularly engaging in social activities such as Facebook and texting during class would have a negative impact on a student’s GPA. There are plenty of other articles that support this assertion, and in this case we are just talking about students using Facebook during class. Do you really think that you are any better at task-switching when it comes to talking on the phone while trying to cook dinner, texting your friend while driving, or playing Candy Crush Saga while spending quality time with your toddler? Think again.

One universal truth is that we all have the same number of hours in a day, and what we choose to do with those hours is up to us. With the rapid pace of technology, the increasing availability of information, and the frantic pace that many of us set for our daily lives, it is no wonder that we look for ways to get more “bang for our buck” out of every minute. Contrary to what you might think, however, multitasking is not the way to accomplish this goal. Attempting to juggle multiple activities at the same time is an almost certain way to ensure that you spend more time in total than you would if you had approached each task sequentially. Attempting to combine activities like texting and driving is an almost certain way to ensure that you eventually injure yourself or another…or worse. So think about what you are really trying to accomplish the next time that you decide to “kill two birds with one stone”, and ask yourself if you are really going to bring home two birds, or just throw some rocks around for a while.

I leave you with this brief, but amusing, talk about multitasking.

Category(s): Education, Science Stuff

9 Responses to The Myth of Multitasking…

  1. I liked this post, the TED talk was interesting, and I’m passing it on to my students! Despite last week’s example of the impossibility of multitasking, I’m listening to a podcast as I write this comment, and I know it’s giving me problems, but I love hearing the sound of voices.

    Ooh, question! If multitasking is impossible, is the fact that I listen to classical music when I write more of a hindrance or a help? After my bachelor’s degree I realized I couldn’t listen to pop or rock music and write at the same time, so I now listen to classical music. I feel that the music helps me concentrate, so I wonder how that thinking factors into this multitasking process. Maybe it’s just a placebo effect.

      sequencingscott says:

      That is an excellent question! From what I have been reading on the topic, it really depends on what you are doing. The common consensus seems to be that listening to anything with words is going to prove a distraction, as you must split your attention between listening to spoken language and focusing on the task at hand. In general, classical music, especially upbeat music, seems to actually help in some cases, most notably when you are engaged in a highly repetitive task. Here is a great article that answers the question better than I can:

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Great post. Besides academic performance, multi-tasking can harm other seasons in life. Over the past year, for example, there have been several articles in the Wall Street Journal describing how multi-tasking (read chating and texting) harms students as they enter professional life. One employer said it simply drives him crazy (to paraphrase). Not the way to impress your boss.

      sequencingscott says:

      Thanks! That makes a lot of sense. I would imagine that employers would respond no more favorably than teachers to the prospect of employees/students spending class time texting, checking Facebook, etc. I know a lot of people whose employers go to the trouble of blocking various sites through the company network to minimize the amount of time wasted online, but there is not much that can be done about smart phone usage. Definitely up to the individual to build good habits, I think. I am contemplating another post on that subject.

      Thanks for reading!

    Jeanette Walters says:

    Thanks for the video! I do think that there are times when you CAN “multitask” and it not be a bad thing (maybe good or at least neutral). For example, I listen to music when I study or work- it actually helps me focus. Sometimes when I’m doing a monotonous task it helps to have a video running in the background- I have to be careful that it’s not a video that will require a lot of concentration (usually something I’ve seen before) but if the task is sufficiently repetitive, while it may not help task performance, it does not significantly hinder it either- it can also help me from being so bored that my mind starts wandering and I make stupid mistakes.

    sequencingscott says:

    I posted this in response to an earlier comment, but I thought I would put it here as well:

    This article does an excellent job of summarizing the impact of music when performing different tasks, but the take home message is that it depends on what type of music you are listening to, and what the task is that you want to accomplish.

    Many people think that listening to music helps with focus. Unless we are talking about something without lyrics played at low volumes, I am going to question the veracity of that statement. There is just too much evidence contradicting the idea that music “improves focus”. I think it might be more accurate to say that listening to music makes certain activities more enjoyable, and thus increases the likelihood that you will persist at doing it longer than you would without music.

    Thanks for reading!

    • Wow, that is a great point – about music making a task more enjoyable and increasing the likelihood of a person sticking with it. It is amazing how easy it can be to confuse causes and effects. You do a very good job at analyzing these situations and calling everything by its rightful name. Thank you for sharing.

  3. By the way, that commercial made my coworkers and me lol Smilie: :D