Do you unload the dishwasher as dinner cooks on the stove…while you talk on the phone, compile a grocery list, and have a load of laundry going? Engaging in all of these activities at once is an example of what is commonly referred to as “multitasking.” I’ve done this a multitude of times and I often think I’m more productive and efficient because of it. Unfortunately, researchers do not corroborate my thoughts.
Before we consider this further, let’s talk semantics. Technically, multitasking involves the completion of two tasks simultaneously. Because of how the brain works, one task must be so well learned that it can be completed without much thought (e.g., walking, chewing) and the two tasks must use different types of brain processing. So, you can multitask by walking and carrying on a conversation with a friend, but you can’t carry on a conversation with a friend and read a novel. You might initially think the latter tasks can be completed together, but once completed, you will not remember both what you read and what you talked about—the brain just doesn’t work that way.
What is colloquially termed multitasking is often actually serial tasking. This involves engaging in numerous tasks in quick succession. The first sentence in this post depicts serial tasking. You start a load of laundry. While it’s washing you put dinner on the stove to cook. While these tasks are underway, you talk on the phone while unloading some dishes. Then you add some items to the grocery list. You are not actively engaged in all the tasks at the same time. When I use the term multitasking in this post, I’m referring to serial tasking.
Now that the meanings of the terms are cleared up, what’s the issue with multitasking? Research indicates that shifts between tasks can be time consuming and increase the possibility of making errors. In fact, shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40% of an individual’s productive time. While a lot of research on multitasking has been conducted in laboratory settings with activities that don’t exactly mirror real life, other studies, namely those involving students completing homework while watching TV and employees completing work while frequently checking their email accounts, reinforce the conclusion that multitasking decreases productivity.
Later this week we’ll explore some alternatives to multitasking and look at some scenarios where I think multitasking might actually work well. For the time being, do these findings surprise you? What have you found in your experience? In what instances do you think multitasking has benefited you?