Multitasking is a myth

Yesterday I was in a doctor’s waiting room. The room was packed with patients, and the reception staff were busy. As they bustled around answering phones, doing paperwork, and talking to the doctors, I noticed one receptionist was being pulled in multiple directions. A doctor wanted to speak to her. She was in the middle of some paperwork. And a nurse was waiting for her to help find a form that had gone missing.

“I’m multitasking!” said the busy receptionist when the nurse complained about having to wait so long. “Don’t worry, I’m good at that!”

Sadly, many of us have found ourselves in this situation. Bustling between many different tasks at once, we convince ourselves we’re good at multitasking and our work won’t suffer because we’re too busy.

But that nurse’s complaint said a lot: the receptionist may have thought she was multitasking, but every minute she spent talking to a doctor or completing her paperwork was another minute the nurse had to wait. The receptionist wasn’t doing more than one task at a time; she was simply switching between them all very quickly.

Multitasking is actually just fast task switching

And it turns out, this is exactly what we all do when we think we’re multitasking: we simply switch very quickly between two tasks.

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While most of us can do something as simple as walking and chewing gum or holding a conversation at the same time, doing two things that require more brain power, such as writing, conversing, or reading, really can’t be done. David Meyer, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor says we simply don’t have any extra brain power to do two complicated things at once:

… as long as you’re performing complicated tasks that require the same parts of the brain, and you need to devote all that capacity for these tasks, there just aren’t going to be resources available to add anything more.

Attempting to multitask isn’t uncommon. One small study found workers switched activity every 3 minutes. But since we really can’t multitask, this process of switching context constantly can actually lead to some bad results.

“Multitasking” leads to poor results

As Meyer says, switching between tasks that require effort and concentration means one or both of those tasks will suffer:

Once you start to make things more complicated, things get messier, and as a result, there’s going to be interference with one or more of the tasks. Either you’re going to have to slow down on one of the tasks, or you’re going to start making mistakes.

Perhaps you’re still unconvinced that we really can’t do two complicated tasks at once. This exercise designed by the Potential Project in Denmark provides a good example of what happens when you try to do two tasks at once that use the same part of your brain:

  • Take a sheet of paper and draw two lines on it.
  • Time yourself while you write “I am a great multitasker” on the first line, and then write the numbers 1–20 on the second line.
  • Now draw two more lines.
  • This time, time yourself doing the two tasks simultaneously. Write a letter from the sentence “I am a great multitasker” on line one, then write the number “1” on line two. Then write the next letter of the sentence on line one, and then “2” on line two. Continue until you’ve completed both tasks.

You probably won’t even have to finish both tasks and check your time to prove how much our work suffers from multitasking. No doubt you’ll find yourself frustrated during the second part of this example and you’ll notice how much slower you’re working without even looking at your timer.

This example shows what happens when we attempt to multitask. Our brain uses up time and effort each time we switch between two (or more) tasks, so we end up being much slower overall. Research has also shown that this process of constantly switching can lead to worse performance than if we allow the brain to focus on just one task at a time.

A study at Carnegie Mellon University found that when asked to complete a spacial awareness task and a language comprehension task at the same time, participants showed 29% less brain activity while working on the spacial awareness task and 53% less on the language task, and overall they took longer to complete both tasks than when they did one at a time.

Another study undertaken by HP found constant technology multitasking caused participants’ IQ to drop temporarily by an average of 10 points.

As psychologist Glenn Wilson says, “… those who are constantly breaking away from tasks to react to email or text messages suffer similar effects on the mind as losing a night’s sleep.”

And in case you’re thinking you’re protected from these downsides because you grew up with technology and know how to wrangle it, Meyer says you’re wrong:

… there’s nothing magical about the brains of so-called ‘digital natives’ that keeps them from suffering the inefficiencies of multitasking.

And these “digital natives” are at least as prone to distraction and multitasking as the rest of us. A study of 263 students in middle school, high school, and college found that in 15 minutes of “studying,” only about 65% of that time was actually spent learning. After about the two-minute mark, “on-task behavior” of students began declining. And this was despite the fact that students knew researchers were watching them discretely to track what they worked on during their study period.

Psychology professor Larry Rosen, who ran the study, was surprised at how much multitasking students engaged in during such a short study period:

We were amazed at how frequently they multitasked, even though they knew someone was watching. It really seems that they could not go for 15 minutes without engaging their devices. It was kind of scary, actually.

And there’s a reason to be scared about these results: students who multitask while studying tend to understand and remember less of what they’ve learned, and struggle to transfer what they’ve learned to new contexts.

Multitasking while completing schoolwork also increases the number of mistakes made and the amount of time required to finish the work.

But of course, students don’t just multitask at home when they’re alone. In school, multitasking is prevalent, especially for students who are able to bring laptops to class for note-taking. Research has found students who multitask on their laptops during class also distract other students who can see what they’re doing. And using Facebook and texting in class have both been linked to lower GPAs.

We can’t help ourselves

Despite all the downsides of multitasking, and the fact that it’s not really multitasking at all, we don’t seem able to stop. Too many of us, like the receptionist in my doctor’s office, kid ourselves about our ability to complete multiple tasks at once without our speed or accuracy taking a hit. And it’s not just when we’re at the desk that we multitask—many of us try to work while eating lunch, study during our commute, or even checking our phones while driving.

But as neuroscientist Earl Miller says, “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves.” But then, Miller also points out that “… the brain is very good at deluding itself.”

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Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.

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