Busting the multi-tasking myth

There has long been a stereotype that women can multitask much better than men. Along with that is the common belief that multitasking allows anyone to be more productive in less time.

The former was recently debunked thanks to recent research published in a blog post by the Harvard Business Review.

In this study, researchers developed a computerised simulation designed to closely resemble everyday life activities. When they compared the results achieved across a group of 66 females and 82 males, they found no discernible difference in serial multitasking abilities between either sex. (Serial multi-tasking is the one we do most often, such as writing an email, being interrupted by a colleague, answering a phone call, then checking twitter, as opposed to concurrent multitasking, such as driving while talking on the phone.)

Regarding the idea that any kind of multitasking allows us to be more productive, this was put to the test back in 2009 by Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford University. He and his team of researchers put 100 students through a series of tests to determine how often, and how well, they multitasked.

Not well at all, as it turns out.

The people who multitasked more often were characterised as “high tech jugglers, keeping up several e-mail and instant message conversations at once, text messaging while watching television and jumping from one website to another while completing homework assignments”.

By every measure, those who multitasked more often performed far worse than those who focussed on one task at a time. Researchers are still trying to figure out if if chronic multitaskers are born without the ability to concentrate, or if they are damaging their cognitive control by choosing to take on so many activities at once.

Either way, I think it proves having a singular mindset and focusing on one task a time leads to far greater productivity and better quality work. Perhaps the reason why so many of us multitask is partly explained by this quote:

It’s not that we have too little time to do all the things we need to do, it’s that we feel the need to do too many things in the time we have.

Gary Keller