The Myth of Multitasking: It’s Not As Simple As We Think

The need to balance and prioritise multiple tasks on the fly is arguably one of the core competencies of the 21st century worker.

Reading an email while talking to a colleague on the phone, finishing off a slide while attending a meeting – we have all experienced the competing demands vying for our attention in the modern workplace. Indeed, many of us would consider ourselves proficient multitaskers for simply managing to survive the barrage of information we receive daily.

It might come as a surprise then, that we are in fact rather bad!

To begin with, the concept of multitasking is itself actually something of a misnomer. Though it might feel like it sometimes, we are rarely capable of doing more than one task at a time. Usually what we are actually doing is something known as task switching (which is exactly what it sounds like) – and it turns out we aren’t even very good at that.

“People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves…Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not…You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.” – Enn Miller, professor of neuroscience at MIT

According to researchers, task switching such as that described above has a number of detrimental impacts on productivity, namely:

  • We are slower when doing both tasks at the same time than when doing them separately
  • We make more errors
  • We lose as much as 40 percent of productive time due to time losses per switch
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Despite these results, however, research indicates that there is nevertheless some individual variation in task switching ability, meaning some people are indeed better at ‘multitasking’ than others. Even more interesting, success seems to depend on both one’s ability and preference for multitasking.

In one recent study by Kristen Sanderson and colleagues participants rated their preference for multitasking, before undertaking a test of multitasking ability, which involved completing two simultaneous tasks (one general problem-solving, the other reading comprehension) on a split-screen.

Results from these indicators were then compared to performance ratings from supervisors, scored across 27 job performance dimensions such as “Acting independently,” “Analysing problems” and “Prioritising work demands.”

Using hierarchical regression (see another example here), it was found that a participant’s preference for multitasking was an important moderator for the relationship between multitasking and job performance. That is, the strength of the relationship between a person’s multitasking ability and their actual performance depended on their preference for multitasking.

Those participants who had both a high multitasking ability and a preference for multitasking demonstrated stronger job performance, while participants with a high ability to multitask, but a lower preference for multitasking showed no observable performance differences.

Not surprisingly, those participants with low preference and low ability also showed no performance benefits. They did however, perform better than their low ability colleagues with a high preference for multitasking!

The moral of the story? To be a successful multitasker, you want to be pretty sure that you are be both willing AND able to multitask, else you might pay the price.

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Andrew is a full-time Management Consultant and part-time blogger who loves getting at the heart what makes businesses successful and customers happy. Read more about Andrew at his website
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