The Facts on Multitasking

The term “multitasking” is derived from “computer multitasking,” first coined in the 1960s by I.B.M.  A computer’s ability to multitask is due to its many core microprocessors; each microprocessor capable of performing one task. With microprocessors running simultaneously, there is a perception that computers are multitasking where, in fact, the multiple microprocessors are performing separate tasks simultaneously.

Edward Hallowell, noted psychiatrist and author, describes multitasking as a “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.” As any efficiency expert can tell you, Hallowell is correct – people cannot perform two or more tasks simultaneously as efficiently as one. Several research studies have been conducted to support this finding.

So why do people multitask? The answers to this question are as varied as the individuals who multitask. Perhaps it’s to meet a deadline or the adrenaline rush of working on many tasks at once – whatever the reason, the act of multitasking never produces the same results as when one works on one task at a time. When your attention is divided, none of the tasks are completed as accurately or efficiently as if you focused and worked on only one task at a time.

For instance, think about driving and talking on a cell phone. One study found that having an accident is four times more likely when using a cell phone while driving. Another study compared reaction times for experienced drivers during a number of tasks, and found that the subjects reacted more slowly to brake lights and stop signs during phone conversations than during other simultaneous tasks.

If you’re on the phone while driving, you can only be doing one task effectively. You are either responding/listening to the telephone conversation or you are driving. Your brain cannot focus on both sources of input at once.

An interesting test currently being conducted by researchers at open-site.org is looking at multitasking. Take the test to see how your skills stack up.

In addition to multitasking reducing our efficiency and productivity, it has been stated that multitasking can have a negative effect on our happiness. This is especially true where we are exposed to too many choices. However, studies by Mark Carrier, Nancy Cheever, and others, demonstrate that younger generations such as Gen Y and Gen Z are better able to navigate the barrage of information and choose what information deserves their attention.

Regardless of how one justifies multitasking to improve their efficiency, there is no scientific evidence that anyone is able to perform equally effectively on tasks when they are done one at a time or when they are approached all at once. Our brains do not come with multiple core processors and until they do, multitasking will continue to usurp efficiency whenever it is attempted.

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