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The Myth of Multitasking

Understanding the Limits of Human Attention

By Donna L. Roberts, PhD (Psych Pstuff)Published 4 months ago 5 min read
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The Myth of Multitasking
Photo by Vitolda Klein on Unsplash

In the fast-paced world of the 21st century, multitasking is often hailed as a necessary skill for efficiency and productivity. However, emerging research in cognitive psychology and neuroscience suggests that the concept of multitasking, as commonly understood, is largely a myth. This article delves into the intricacies of this phenomenon, unraveling the misconceptions about human attention and productivity.

Understanding Multitasking: A Cognitive Perspective

The term “multitasking” implies the ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously. However, what most people perceive as multitasking is actually task-switching. Human attention has limitations, and the brain processes information serially rather than in parallel when it comes to conscious, high-level tasks (Rubinstein, Meyer & Evans, 2001). This means that when individuals attempt to multitask, they are swiftly switching their focus from one task to another, rather than processing them simultaneously.

The Costs of Task-Switching

Task-switching is not a seamless process; it comes with cognitive costs. Research by Rubinstein, Meyer, and Evans (2001) demonstrated that switching between tasks leads to time costs, increased errors, and a decrease in overall efficiency. This inefficiency is exacerbated when the tasks are complex or unfamiliar. The cognitive load increases significantly, leading to reduced effectiveness and potential burnout (Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013).

The average office worker now spends 40 percent of their work time wrongly believing they are “multitasking” — which means they are incurring all these costs for their attention and focus. In fact, uninterrupted time is becoming rare. One study found that most of us working in offices never get a whole hour uninterrupted in a normal day. ― Johann Hari, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention- and How to Think Deeply Again

The Illusion of Productivity

Despite these drawbacks, many individuals believe they are more productive when multitasking. This belief is, in part, an illusion fostered by the immediate, albeit shallow, engagement with multiple tasks. Sanbonmatsu, Strayer, Medeiros-Ward, and Watson (2013) found that individuals who frequently multitask overestimate their multitasking abilities, often to the detriment of their performance. This overestimation is a cognitive bias, where the busyness and activity are mistaken for effective productivity.

The Impact on Learning and Memory

Multitasking has notable implications in educational settings. A study by Junco and Cotten (2012) highlighted that multitasking during academic tasks, like studying while using social media, can lead to poorer academic performance. The division of attention impairs the ability to encode information into long-term memory, which is essential for learning. This is in line with the cognitive load theory, which posits that working memory has limited capacity and is easily overloaded by multitasking (Sweller, 1988).

The Digital Age and Constant Connectivity

The advent of digital technology and constant connectivity has exacerbated the myth of multitasking. The constant influx of emails, texts, and notifications creates an environment where continuous task-switching is normalized. However, Ophir, Nass, and Wagner (2009) found that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to distractions, indicating a decrease in the ability to filter out irrelevant information. This challenges the notion that frequent multitaskers develop superior multitasking skills.

The Neuroscience Behind Multitasking

Neuroscientific research provides insights into why multitasking is problematic. The prefrontal cortex, responsible for executive functions, plays a crucial role in switching between tasks (Miller & Cohen, 2001). When individuals switch tasks, there is a “switch cost” at the neurological level, involving reconfiguration of neural networks, which takes time and cognitive resources. Furthermore, multitasking has been shown to increase the production of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as adrenaline, which can overstimulate the brain and hinder performance (Arnsten, 2009).

Strategies for Effective Task Management

Given the drawbacks of multitasking, it is vital to adopt strategies that enhance focus and productivity. Time management techniques, such as the Pomodoro Technique, encourage focused work intervals with short breaks, reducing the temptation to multitask (Cirillo, 2006). Additionally, mindfulness and meditation practices can enhance concentration and attentional control, countering the effects of distraction (Jha, Krompinger, & Baime, 2007).

By Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

The myth of multitasking is pervasive in modern society, but it stands in stark contrast to the realities of human cognitive capabilities. The evidence suggests that what is often perceived as multitasking is, in fact, inefficient task-switching. Understanding and accepting the limits of our attention and cognitive resources is crucial in a world that continuously demands more. Embracing single-tasking and focused work may not only enhance productivity but also contribute to a more balanced and less stressful life.

References

Arnsten, A. F. (2009). Stress signaling pathways that impair prefrontal cortex structure and function. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(6), 410–422.

Cirillo, F. (2006). The Pomodoro Technique. https://francescocirillo.com/pages/pomodoro-technique

Jha, A. P., Krompinger, J., & Baime, M. J. (2007). Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience, 7(2), 109–119.

Junco, R., & Cotten, S. R. (2012). No A 4 U: The relationship between multitasking and academic performance. Computers & Education, 59(2), 505–514.

Kirschner, P. A., & van Merriënboer, J. J. (2013). Do learners really know best? Urban legends in education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 169–183.

Miller, E. K., & Cohen, J. D. (2001). An integrative theory of prefrontal cortex function. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 24(1), 167–202.

Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(37), 15583–15587.

Rubinstein, J. S., Meyer, D. E., & Evans, J. E. (2001). Executive control of cognitive processes in task switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4), 763–797.

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(1), e54402.

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving: Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12(2), 257–285.

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About the Creator

Donna L. Roberts, PhD (Psych Pstuff)

Writer, psychologist and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, human and animal rights, and industrial/organizational psychology

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Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

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  • Jay Kantor4 months ago

    Dear Dr. D ~ So glad to virtually meet you. ToldYa I was just a 'Goof Writer' as witnessed by reading some of my 'Shorts'....have to find a way to smile with all of the unrest of late. 'The Myth of Multitasking' is so interesting - we all do it without paying attention -  me, I can't walk and chew gum at the same time. *You Delve~Probe - I'm Surface (for lack of a more appropriate description.) I'm an ask/answer sort...and have a banner over the entry of my firm: Don't ask is you don't want/or need the answer. If you have a moment please see 'Pink Slip' and 'Swinging on a Star'...my slants on Schtick. And, Donna, please direct me to one of your favorites to view; we all have them. - My Pleasure - 'j' in L.A.

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