NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Multitasking or Just Distracted?

February 27, 2003

Multitasking, trying to do two or three things at once or in quick succession, can make you less efficient than doing them one by one, according to a growing body of research.

The implication is that workers and students juggling several projects or tasks may be reducing the quality and/or quantity of their output.

This research has been applied to the debate over driving with cell phones, but it has quality-of-life implications too. For example,

  • People who are multitasking too much can experience short-term memory problems, lack of concentration or inattentiveness.
  • Intense multitasking can induce a stress response, an adrenaline rush that when prolonged can damage cells that form new memory.

However, 45 percent of American workers feel they are asked or expected to work on too many tasks at once, says the Families and Work Institute.

People who multitask are actually less efficient than those focusing on one project at a time, says a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

  • That is because the time lost switching among tasks increases with their complexity.
  • Switching back immediately to a task just performed takes longer than switching after more time has passed, because the brain has to overcome self-imposed inhibitions that kicked in when stopping the first task; waiting several seconds longer before switching reduces those obstacles.
  • Furthermore, activities engaging different brain centers reduce the mental power available -- for example, listening to music while viewing television may reduce visual processing resources 29 percent and auditory input processing resources 53 percent, says a study in NeuroImage.

It is also possible to improve multitasking ability through meditation, weeding out distractions, learning new things and getting plenty of rest.

Practice also helps; it takes less time to switch between tasks repeated many times, like tying your shoes and signing your name.

Source: Sue Shellenbarger, "New Studies Show Pitfalls Of Doing Too Much At Once," Work & Family, Wall Street Journal, February 27, 2003.


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