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Why You Should Stop Multitasking…Right Now

Multitasking is often thought of as a magical tool that will help people be more productive.

About ten years ago the Internet became flooded with articles about multitasking and its potential benefits for productivity and time management. Now and then you can stumble upon articles, written for entrepreneurs, employers, or people who want to increase their productivity, promoting multitasking. A lot of people face the issue of not having enough time due to the fast pace of modern life, having a lot of commitments, or not being good at time management, so they choose to multitask, hoping it would allow them to save some time. However, what people don’t realize is that multitasking can be harmful, both for the quality of their work and their productivity.

Attention is a limited resource so if we multitask, we have to divide it between the tasks.

What is exactly multitasking? Cognitive psychologists define multitasking as performing multiple tasks while constantly switching between them. A key feature of multitasking is that a person focuses on each task over a short time span (Oswald et al., 2007). Multitasking can take a lot of forms: it can be listening to a podcast while walking, watching a TV show while doing your homework, or texting while driving. Some tasks mix well, like listening to a podcast while you are walking because walking is an automatic process that does not require a lot of cognitive resources. However, most of the time it is impossible for us to focus on two tasks simultaneously, especially if both of them are controlled processes, which require a lot of attentional resources, so we have to divide our attention between them, which comes at a cost.


What happens when you multitask.

One of the most common pitfalls is that multitasking leads to lower performance. A study by Sana et al. (2013) focused on the effects of laptop use during lectures on the test performance of college students. Researchers found that the students who multitasked in the classroom had lower comprehension of the lecture material, which resulted in poorer test performance. Students who used their laptops in the classroom were not paying a lot of attention to what the professor said, so they could not encode the material properly, which is the first and key step in the memory process. If we do not encode the information properly, we cannot retrieve it at a later time. When the test came, the participants had a hard time recalling the information because some of it was lost during the encoding process. So next time you are studying for a test, consider avoiding multitasking.

But the dangers of multitasking are not restricted to learning – psychologists found that talking on a phone while driving leads to longer braking times, inattention to road signals, and shorter distance from other cars. The performance of multitasking drivers was similar to that of intoxicated drivers. As we can see, multitasking seriously impairs driving skills and can be dangerous. The lower performance of multitaskers can be explained by the limited attentional resources we have. Driving is a very demanding controlled process, so we should be paying all of our attention to driving and avoid multitasking for safety reasons.

Do you still think that multitasking is beneficial for you? What if I say that it actually takes longer to finish the tasks when you are multitasking rather than when you are doing them separately? As mentioned before, multitasking is the continuous switching between two tasks which means that there will be switching costs. Even though the time needed for switching might be just a couple of seconds, it adds up to a significant amount of time. The reason for this is the interference from a previous task: when we move to a different task, the information we used for the completion of the first task might get in the way and hinder our performance on the new task (Rubinstein et al., 2001). For example, if you are multitasking on a math problem set and an English paper, it will take you longer to switch to writing the paper because the memory of math formulae and technical terms will interfere with the literary vocabulary you need for writing a paper.

And if you still think that multitasking does not affect your productivity and efficiency, then you have probably fallen into the overconfidence pitfall. When we multitask, we tend to overestimate our performance. Finley et al. (2014) described that the participants with the worst performance while multitasking did not predict that decrement. This lowered metacognition (e.g., “knowledge about knowledge”) can be potentially harmful to academics, work, and even safety if you are a driver who decided that taking a phone call or sending a text is not a big deal while you are behind the wheel.

Does this mean that you should avoid multitasking at all times? Most likely, yes, unless you are doing a task that is automatic and does not require a lot of attentional resources. Although there is a small percentage of people who actually perform better when they multitask – they are called supertaskers. In a 2010 study, Watson and Strayer found that 2.5% of the sample they recruited showed no decrease in their performance on a dual task which included driving and a difficult auditory task. The supertaskers were also superior at performing a single task as well. Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that one can become a supertasker as they have different neural activation patterns in their brains than normal people do, but you can take this test to find out if you are one of those 2.5% lucky people who can multitask successfully.



Finley, J. R., Benjamin, A. S., & McCarley, J. S. (2014). Metacognition of multitasking: How well do we predict the costs of divided attention? Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20(2), 158–165.

Oswald, F. L., Hambrick, D. Z., & Jones, L. A. (2007). Keeping all the plates spinning: Understanding and predicting multitasking performance. Learning to solve complex scientific problems, 77–97.

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, 763-797.

Sana, F., Weston, T., & Cepeda, N. J. (2013). Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers and Education, 62, 24-31.

Watson, J. M., & Strayer, D. L. (2010). Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17(4), 479-485.






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