Multitasking: is it Overrated?




The ability to multitask is usually viewed positively. But does it help in improving productivity? New research indicates that this is highly unlikely.

For years we have been hearing and being allured by the term multitasking, with many of us unwittingly believing that it is something supernatural and too good to neglect, and we ought to develop it in ourselves to succeed. But the question arises, is it as good as it sounds? What does the new research say? Is it possible for a person to concentrate and remain productive on several tasks at once?

Going through research articles can be perplexing for most of us, but most of the research seems to favor doing one task at a time. There are several downsides to multitasking, often resulting in decreased overall productivity and quality of work. A person who tries to finish one job at a time seems to do more at the end of the day. Multitasking could be valuable only to a certain extent if you are doing some simple tasks, but after a certain threshold productivity decreases and quality of work suffers. Multitasking often fails to improve productivity.

Ultimately, it depends on the kind of tasks you are doing. If a person is doing lots of jobs, that are simple and the person performing them is adept at them, then maybe yes. At least in some cases, multitasking may be good, but generally, this is not the case. Some people are inherently inferior to others when it comes to multitasking. One thing that most scientific research demonstrates is that multitasking results in significant loss of accuracy. The more you multitask, the more errors you are bound to make, thereby leading to reduced overall productivity. Considering that in some cases performance errors can even be catastrophic, improved performance with most multitasking is a mere illusion that comes at the price of poor results and a higher error rate.

Multitasking leads to mental overloading

When people are given various tasks, they need some time to switch to another function. This results in the loss of both time and productivity. This switching time is directly related to the complexity of the task. If the task being switched to is complicated and less familiar, one needs more time then when attending to the more familiar task. Thus multitasking can result in mental overloading in reconfiguring mental settings from switching between tasks. Also, more information has to be in working memory while switching between the various functions, like the progress status of the previous task. Research shows that these short mental blocks between the switching can bring down productivity by as much as 40%. Scheduling tasks can more efficiently increase productivity than multitasking.

What about gender differences?

Women may be better at juggling between several tasks, but this is true only when the tasks are simple in nature; the kind of tasks achieved on a daily basis that requires little mental processing. Examples include cleaning the house while talking on the phone. But when multitasking involves more complex tasks, this gender difference becomes irrelevant. Therefore, talking on the phone while driving is equally dangerous for both sexes. In fact, one study demonstrated that women dislike multitasking as much as men do. Given a choice, women don’t seem to switch between several tasks more often than men. When multitasking, both genders perform equally poorly. Moreover, whether multitasking is done by free will or it has been forced due to job constraints does not seem to have any effect on productivity.

Who is multitasking and why?

One study focused on finding personality differences between self-proclaimed multitaskers and non-multitaskers. The study tried to find out why some people opt to multitask while others may avoid, and if the multitaskers are actually any good at multitasking. Results of the research were quite astonishing.

Most of the people who multitask are not necessarily good at it. In fact, the results pointed to the opposite: people who are good at multitasking usually avoid doing it. Generally, those who are impulsive sensation seekers tend to multitask. By multitasking, some of these people seem to gain pleasure. Another reason why certain people multitask is due to overbloated self-assessment. Individuals who more regularly multitask often overrate their capabilities and fail to understand that they are not better than others in multitasking.

Multitaskers make mistakes more often, and they seem to be less self-critical about their abilities, and they have a lowered understanding of their errors and losses. Furthermore, multitaskers are often people with attention deficits who have difficulty focusing on a single given task.

What we know so far about multitasking

  • Multitasking decreases productivity in most cases, by as much as 40%.
  • Multitasking results in much higher error rates, which reduces productivity and can be harmful in some cases.
  • There are no proven gender differences in complex multitasking.
  • Multitasking is often related to certain personality traits like being impulsive and sensation seeking.
  • Those that consider themselves as multitaskers are not typically the people who are good at it.
  • Multitaskers often lack the ability to concentrate properly on a given task.
  • Effectiveness of multitasking depends on the complexity of the job, with multiple complex jobs being harder to do at the same time than multiple easy jobs.
  • Scheduling the various tasks can increase productivity relative to multitasking.

Thus, the existing research studies seem to favor doing tasks sequentially or one by one, rather than multitasking. Multitasking increases the risk of making mistakes, and this rule applies equally to both genders. Therefore, understanding the downsides of multitasking not only improves productivity but might also save us from catastrophic errors.

References

Adler, R.F., Benbunan-Fich, R., 2012. Juggling on a high wire: Multitasking effects on performance. Int. J. Hum.-Comput. Stud. 70, 156–168. doi: 10.1016/j.ijhcs.2011.10.003.

Buser, T., Peter, N., 2012. Multitasking. Exp. Econ. 15, 641–655. doi: 10.1007/s10683-012-9318-8.

Kc, D.S., 2013. Does Multitasking Improve Performance? Evidence from the Emergency Department. Manuf. Serv. Oper. Manag. 16, 168–183. doi: 10.1287/msom.2013.0464.

Multitasking: Switching costs [WWW Document], n.d. . http://www.apa.org. URL http://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx (accessed 7.22.17).

Sanbonmatsu, D.M., Strayer, D.L., Medeiros-Ward, N., Watson, J.M., 2013. Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking. PLOS ONE 8, e54402. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0054402.

Image via SerenaWong/Pixabay.

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD

Viatcheslav Wlassoff, PhD, is a scientific and medical consultant with experience in pharmaceutical and genetic research. He has an extensive publication history on various topics related to medical sciences. He worked at several leading academic institutions around the globe (Cambridge University (UK), University of New South Wales (Australia), National Institute of Genetics (Japan). Dr. Wlassoff runs consulting service specialized on preparation of scientific publications, medical and scientific writing and editing (Scientific Biomedical Consulting Services).
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