Multitasking Part 2: Bad Multitasking: Those Who Shouldn’t, Do It the Most

One Man Band-CBR001863-VisualPhotos.com copyI can picture the scene in my head to this day. I was in a meeting in Asia several years ago and a colleague in the meeting was participating in the discussion while writing email and reading the open book on his lap. I was impressed!

But should I have been?

In my previous post I shared some interesting facts about multitasking. If you haven’t read it yet, plead go read it now and come back.

This post will concentrate on the downside of multitasking. There is so much research coming out lately, pointing to the fact that it is just not good for us. I will highlight a few of the more interesting and insightful studies.

Why Most People Multitask

The latest research indicates that there are four main reasons why the heaviest multitaskers do so.

  • They have a lack of restraint or self-discipline. People who are more impulsive and are more sensation-seeking tend to participate in it the most.
  • They are easily distracted. Researchers found that the heaviest multitaskers did do several things at once to get more done, but because they were not able to block out distractions and focus on one task at a time. They were, in fact, really bad at doing several things at once even though they tended to do it the most.
  • They are overconfident of their ability to multitask. Even though the heaviest multitaskers scored lower on multitasking measurement tests, they scored themselves significantly higher in their ability than they actually were.
  • They wanted to impress other people. One of the other main reasons cited for multitasking was because they had observed others doing it, were impressed, and wanted to impress others.

As one researcher* stated, “We showed that people who multitask the most are those who appear to be the least capable of multitasking effectively.”

In another study out of Stanford**, researchers expected that heavy multitaskers would be better than average on three skills important to effective multitasking—filtering information, switching between tasks effectively, and keeping a high working memory. They were shocked to find that the heaviest multitaskers were the worst at all three tasks. They said, “It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.”

Even worse, the these participants felt great about their achievements and believed they were getting more accomplished, even though they scored worse than those who were singletasking. Professor David Strayer, adds, “The people who are most likely to multitask harbor the illusion they are better than average at it, when in fact they are no better than average and often worse.”

The Real Irony With Those Who Multitask Less

Meanwhile, the people who really are good at multitasking seem to be the ones who do it less.

Two things were true about the 25% of people who scored highest on the multitasking tests:

  • They spent less time doing it
  • They were better at it

About the only bright spot in all of this is that the Stanford study found that since music is processed in a different part of the brain than other tasks, it seems to be okay to listen to music while doing something else.

Enough of the bad news! In my next post, I will share the good news about how multitasking can be good. See you then!

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*David M. Sanbonmatsu, David L. Strayer, Nathan Medeiros-Ward, Jason M. Watson. Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (1): e54402 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0054402

**Eyal Ophira, Clifford Nass, Anthony D. Wagner. Cognitive control in media multitaskers.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America; September 15, 2009.

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