Multitasking Part 3: Good Multitasking: The Good News Is…It Isn’t All Bad

Comic cartoon of a man multitaskingThe 100 Kilometer Error
I was driving with a friend and was really enjoying our conversation. The only problem was that I was too engrossed in our discussion, missed a turn, and didn’t discover my mistake until we had gone 50 km in the wrong direction.

That is the downside of multitasking. Today, in the 3rd installment of this series, I want to talk about the good things about doing multiple activities at one time.

In Part 1, I shared some interesting and surprising facts about multitasking.

In the last post, I mentioned some startling research that shows just how bad multitasking can be.

Today, I want to talk about the good things about multitasking. Next time, I will share some practical tips on how you can increase your productivity and your life by multitasking well.

Research First

While there are dozens, and maybe hundreds, of studies that show the downside of multitasking (for example, a 40% drop in productivity*), at least 2 recent studies have highlighted some positive things about it.

Improved Judgement
Researchers in a study from the University of Basel** found that sometimes the cognitive load that results from multitasking improved performance because it forced the participants to switch cognitive strategies and use a more efficient action plan to solve problems.

Multi-sensory Integration
In another study***, researchers found that participants who were heavy media multitaskers were less distracted by an unexpected sound when trying to complete other tasks. They said, “Although the present findings do not demonstrate any causal effect, they highlight an interesting possibility of the effect of media multitasking on certain cognitive abilities, multisensory integration in particular. Media multitasking may not always be a bad thing.”

That is the good news! It should be noted that these are 2 small studies that point to the good effects of multitasking while nearly all of the other research casts a very harsh light on trying to manage several jobs at one time. But, we are highlighting the good in this blog, so rejoice over these 2 studies!

When Multitasking is Good

Despite all of the bad things I have said about it, we should be multitasking.

As I said earlier, in the next post I’ll share many practical tips on effective multitasking, but I want to talk about good multitasking for a moment here.

It actually is a great idea to do several things at once as long as only one of them is important and mentally taxing.

Multitasking is a fantastic way to get many things done simultaneously as long as all but one of them is low-priority and low-cognitive load.

The other day I was answering email (highly cognitive) while I was downloading a computer update (low cognitive), baking a cake in the oven (low cognitive), washing a load of clothes (low cognitive), and had music playing the background (uses a different brain center than writing skills). I have found, personally, that I need to set timers so my clothes don’t sit in the washer after it is finished and my cake isn’t set on fire because I forgot to take it out. I have several timers and often have 3-4 low cognitive tasks on the “back burner” while concentrating on one important task.

One of my favorite forms of multitasking is listening to audiobooks while I exercise. I learn something while I am distracted from the physical pain and drudgery of the exercise. I call that win/win.

As long as you do it right, multitask away!!!

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*Rubinstein, Joshua S.; Meyer, David E.; Evans, Jeffrey E. (2001). Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, 27(4), 763-797.

**J. A. Hoffmann, B. von Helversen, J. Rieskamp. Deliberation’s Blindsight: How Cognitive Load Can Improve Judgments. Psychological Science, 2013; DOI: 10.1177/0956797612463581

***Kelvin F. H. Lui, Alan C.-N. Wong. Does media multitasking always hurt? A positive correlation between multitasking and multisensory integration. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 2012; DOI: 10.3758/s13423-012-0245-7

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