Is multitasking a helpful skill? Only if you want to do a half-baked job. Over the years many people have extoled the virtues of juggling simultaneous tasks. I fell prey to that belief as well. But research shows that the end-product of our work is lower quality. Of the books I have written those that were best-sellers benefited from focused attention when I wasn’t also prepping for classes, drafting keynotes, working with business clients, advising other people’s projects, traveling and, of course, helping with family responsibilities. But I was convinced I could do it all. I remember feeling that I was getting a lot done, but it was in retrospect that I was actually getting a lot done with mediocre quality. Yet we continue to trumpet multitasking as an important skill, asking new hires if they can handle multiple simultaneous assignments (few job candidates are going to say no…) and telling colleagues that we can accomplish multiple deadlines by just managing our time better. But then our work time ends up bleeding into our personal time and our life time until we have no time. And we still have to deliver because other people are depending on us. It can become an exhausting spiral.
Are there any benefits to multitasking? Yale’s Gal Zauberman tested this question. She and colleagues from University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania conducted a study (2019)[i] in which people were divided into two groups: one watched a video and was told to conduct two tasks simultaneously-identifying what they learned from the video, then transcribing it; the other was told they had a single task-to watch and transcribe the video. Both groups were tested at the end. The results showed that the multitaskers outperformed the single-taskers. Did this prove that multitasking leads to better performance? Well, no. Zauberman’s study tested tasks that were closely aligned. When people perceive they’re multitasking, they perform better, at least under very specific conditions. And the conditions in this case were tasks closely related to the video. As Zauberman said
“Doing multiple distinct tasks at one time is still not a good thing and it will not lead to greater performance and satisfaction. I don’t want these results to push people toward multitasking… How close or far the nature of one task is from another could have a big effect on the outcome…”[ii]
If we’re doing distinct, unrelated tasks at the same time, then the quality of each task’s outcomes is very likely to diminish due to the different ‘cognitive demands’ each task requires. When we switch back and forth among multiple tasks then we become less efficient, and less effective.[iii]
Perhaps most alarming is that multitasking is shown to impair memory. In fact, what we typically define as multitasking is actually ‘task switching’ and research shows that it can not only negatively affect working memory but also harm ‘sustained attention’.[iv]
If memory is a concern, then try practicing these 3 simple tips from Stanford Magazine’s Summer Moore Batte.[v] To paraphrase:
- Stop multitasking (read above for reasons why)
- Test yourself[vii] (see this endnote for more in-depth research about testing)[viii]
Unless something miraculous happens that advances the human species, multitasking is unlikely to be a source of long-term career success, let alone enjoyment, unless the tasks are aligned. In fact, multitasking as most people perceive it is likely a cause of workplace stress. I wonder if part of the current ‘great resignation’[ix] and low uptake on available job opportunities is partly due to people being fed up with overwhelming workplaces demanding unreasonable and fictitious multitasking skills and are consequently seeking only those opportunities that enable them to do their very best work, rather than the very most work.
[i] Walsh, Dylan. (2019). The Illusion of Multitasking Improves Performance on Simple Tasks. Yale Insights. Retrieved from https://insights.som.yale.edu/insights/the-illusion-of-multitasking-improves-performance-on-simple-tasks.
[iii] Leland, A., Tavakol, K., Scholten, J., Mathis, D., Maron, D., & Bakhshi, S. (2017). The Role of Dual Tasking in the Assessment of Gait, Cognition and Community Reintegration of Veterans with Mild Traumatic Brain Injury. Materia socio-medica, 29(4), 251–256. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.5455/msm.2017.29.251-256
[iv] Multiple sources: 1. Bates, Sofie. (2018). A decade of data reveals that heavy multitaskers have reduced memory, Stanford psychologist says. Stanford News. Retrieved from https://news.stanford.edu/2018/10/25/decade-data-reveals-heavy-multitaskers-reduced-memory-psychologist-says/; 2. Uncapher, Melina R; Anthony D. Wagner. (2018). Minds and brains of media multitaskers: Current findings and future directions. PNAS. 115 (40) 9889-9896; first published October 1, 2018; https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1611612115;
[v] Batte, Summer Moore. (2021). How to Improve Your Memory. Stanford Magazine. Retrieved from
[vi] Walling, Melina. (2019). How to Be Present. Stanford Magazine. Retrieved from https://stanfordmag.org/contents/how-to-improve-your-memory.
[vii] Wallis, Claudia. (2017). A Better Way to Study Through Self-Testing and Distributed Practice. Mind/Shift KQED. Retrieved from https://www.kqed.org/mindshift/49750/a-better-way-to-study-through-self-testing-and-distributed-practice.
[viii] Dunlosky, John; Katherine A. Rawson; Elizabeth J. Marsh; Mitchell J. Nathan; Daniel T. Worthington. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1177/1529100612453266.
[ix] Hymes, Kathryn. (2021). ‘The Great Resignation’ Misses the Point. Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/great-resignation-misses-the-point/.