Are There Benefits to Multitasking?
Poor multitasking. It gets such a bad rap, beginning with the nontrivial fact that there’s no such thing. Although multitasking refers to the attempt to do many things at a time, what we’re actually doing when we claim to be multitasking is serial tasking—shifting from one task to another in rapid succession.
Sometimes, so-called multitasking is just fine. But we can’t ignore the fact that when we attempt to do it, we face risks. We take longer to complete tasks, make more mistakes, retain less content, and get stressed. In the worst cases, multitasking can cause devastating outcomes. The number of people injured in motor vehicle crashes resulting from distracted driving is in the hundreds of thousands each year. Thousands more people have been killed.
With such a negative picture, I started wondering if there could be any benefits to multitasking—or the thing we refer to as multitasking, at least. When I looked into it, I found that there are at least a few. For example, multitasking helps you reduce boredom and stay motivated by including more activities in your day and moving back and forth between them. It helps you become better at coping with interruptions, distractions, and all the craziness going on around you.
When you do the right combination of tasks at the same time, multitasking can save time. For example, if you listen to a podcast while running on the treadmill, or you pay bills while watching TV, you’re saving time. Even though your brain may not be fully focused on both tasks simultaneously, you’re able to switch effectively enough between tasks that there’s minimal downside. Usually.
Actually, the ability to multitask seems to improve with practice. Given that the workplace is unlikely to adopt a single-task-at-a-time mode of operation, the idea that we might get better at it is a hopeful sign. It could be that years hence, we’ll discover that multitasking is like many other abilities: the more we do it, the better we become.
Still, recent research suggests that people who think they excel at multitasking actually don't. Frequent multitaskers have been found to be bad at filtering irrelevant information from relevant information, to have diminished powers of mental organization, and to find it extra difficult switching between tasks. But given what we’re learning about neuroplasticity—the brain’s ability to change and adapt as a result of experience—we may yet evolve to become superb multitaskers.
In the meantime, common sense suggests that we ought not fool ourselves into thinking we can do several things at a time all as well as if we’re doing each one by itself. For the foreseeable future, at least, we can’t.