Misconceptions of Multitasking

Have you ever found yourself with more things to do than you have time to do them?  Who am I kidding, that’s everyone’s life in college.  So what better way to combat this dilemma than to multitask?

With our ever growing to-do lists, the convenience of being able to work at our own pace is now gone and we are left with smaller amounts of time to complete much larger tasks.  This pressure to produce by a deadline has left many people thinking that multitasking is not only a saving grace, but a means necessary to complete all of one’s tasks.

The fact is that in very few instances does multitasking truly exist.  When someone thinks they are multitasking, they are switch-tasking (or serial-tasking), an act of rapidly switching from task to task with unproductive interruptions between each switch.  “Doing several things at once is a trick we play on ourselves, thinking we’re getting more done.  In reality, our productivity goes down by as much as 40%” writes Peter Bregman, a strategic advisor to CEOs and their leadership teams in his Harvard Business Review blog.

“The Power of Prime—The cluttered mind uncluttered” by Jim Taylor, an article published in Psychology Today, states that real multitasking can only occur when you engage in two or more tasks simultaneously, and is only possible under two conditions: 1) one of the tasks must be a learned and automatic behavior, meaning that no conscious thinking takes place during the act (e.g. walking) and 2) each task involves a different brain process (e.g. running—motor skill, and listening to music—conscious thought).

In fact, many people who think they are productive multitaskers are the least successful of them all.  Professor David Strayer, a senior author of the study, Frequent Multitaskers Are Bad at It: Motorists Overrate Ability to Talk on Cell Phones When Driving conducted at the University of Utah, concludes that

“the people who multitask the most tend to be impulsive, sensation-seeking, overconfident of their multitasking abilities and they tend to be less capable of multitasking.”

The study found that the 25% of students who performed best in the study were less frequent multitaskers and were natural single-taskers as opposed to an overwhelming 70% of the participating students who rated themselves above average at multitasking.

Bregman, once a diligent (so he thought) multitasker challenged himself to single-task (or unitask) for a week and discovered these six benefits:

  1. He enjoyed it.  He never expected to find delight in single-tasking but realized how much more fulfilling and endearing experiences were when he focused on them and them alone.
  2. He made large strides in projects that once seemed overwhelmingly difficult.  Bregman found himself being focused and persistent on tasks he normally distracted himself from.
  3. His stress level decreased dramatically.  He felt a sense of relief not having to juggle so many responsibilities at one time, a feeling that aligns with research that states multitasking is inefficient and stressful.
  4. He lost patience for tasks that wasted his time.  Because he was only focused on the tasks at hand, background tasks seemed to be excruciatingly mundane and encouraged him to switch his focus to more productive tasks.
  5. He gained patience for things he felt were enjoyable and useful.  It sounds silly, but have you ever really stopped to smell the roses?  Bregman engaged in conscious thought during every task he completed.  This awareness helped him to appreciate the positivity he had previously looked over.
  6. He found no downside.  He lost nothing by multitasking—no projects left unfinished or people unattended to.  He simply found a different way of doing it all.

So, what now?  Should we continue to multitask, or more realistically switch-task in most cases, or should we shift to a more singular focus and start checking items off our lists one by one?  I think there may be a time and place for multitasking but it’s best if we recognize which tasks are easily performed in tandem and which require our undivided and focused attention.

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Heidi Meier

Heidi Meier

Heidi Meier is a junior at the University of California, Davis pursuing degrees in communication and psychology. At school, Heidi can be found participating in psychology experiments or lounging on the quad. Outside of school, she enjoys exploring new cities, adventuring with friends, and playing with her puppy, Pancake.
Heidi Meier

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