Is multitasking effective?

There has been something about multitasking that I never felt was right, and it’s been difficult to explain. Multitasking has been seen as the greatest thing since sliced bread, but I’ve had reservations about it. Part of this problem has been because of my background in computers & engineering, where multitasking requires additional processor time to handle organising the multiple tasks. Another part, is that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the creator of the term Flow, describes that to get into the zone of best work efficiency the task undertaken must match closely to the skills that you have. (NB: For some background of Flow, look at his TED talk, Flow, the secret to happiness).

From a computer’s perspective multitasking is less effective than doing one thing well. A computer is able to get away with it because of the speed at which it processes the numbers- although some of its speed is consumed with handling (or remembering) the multiple tasks and switching between them so rapidly that the users does not notice the delay in the computer.

However, people are not computers. Maybe the human brain is better equipped to deal with multiple tasks, however, current neural research supports the idea that multitasking is not everything we want it to be. Dr. Travis B points out in, The Real Harm in Multitasking, that the cost of multitasking is a loss of attention and more error prone work. A Stanford study shows that media multitaskers pay a mental price: it may impair your cognitive control, because according to Professor Clifford Nass, “They’re suckers for irrelevancy,” and “Everything distracts them.”. This potentially leads to greater difficultly in focusing on a single task, which is something Daniel Goleman discusses at length in his book, Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.

And the devil is in the detail with multitasking. Cognitive tasks require focus, and time for the mind to adjust to the problem-space (ie to gain an understanding of the problem), before embarking on finding a solution. But mindless tasks, such as unlocking a door, that don’t require conscientious effort, can be multi-tasked. For example; walking and talking on the phone.

Research may support a slight gender bias for females to multi-task, and males to mono-task, but the influences could be more cultural than genetic. Allan & Barbara Pease’s book, Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps: How We’re Different and What to Do About It, does explore the cultural & genetic influences on people’s development, but does not draw any definite conclusions in either direction. These gender biases can only be described as tendencies and more importance must be placed on the skills of the individual.

One of the interesting things is the comments from The Real Harm in Multitasking, of people who demonstrate a preference from a particular style of working, either mono-tasking, or multitasking. And there is more of a case for individuals to have natural predispositions in the way they prefer to work, the type of task undertaken, and the individual habits formed. According to the study Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brainthe developmental trajectories of males and females separate at a young age, demonstrate wide differences during adolescence and adulthood.

If there is a preference for multi or mono tasking, then it is likely to be formed during the middle years (years 5-8 or ages 9 to 13) regardless of wither it is nature or nurture.

In an education context, a solitary focus on multitasking is a mistake, because the primary goal of education is to develop thinking or to place some thought between emotion and action. This requires the full attention of the brain, and can not be done with a distracted mind. Once the lesson is learned it can be shifted to the automatic neural systems. However, it is worth noting that experts like Olympic athletes, concert musicians and such, keep this neural processing in the conscious part of this mind to further develop their skill. Which points to the deeper question of why are you developing the skill in the first place? This is one of the fundamental questions of student engagement.

Returning to the question of Multitasking, it is a question of the reason behind the activity. Does it aim to improve the cognition around a task (ie learning), to reason out a solution to a complex problem (thinking), or is it completing work where the thinking has been completed (doing).