27 September 2023

Multitasking is bad for you… or is it?

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Sadhbh O’Sullivan* looks at what multitasking actually is and why it gets such a bad rap.

How often do you find yourself multitasking? If you’re anything like me it marks a lot of your life.

At work, when you’re drafting an email while responding to a colleague or fielding the requests of three customers at once.

At home, when you are somehow washing up and answering a call from your mum while simultaneously planning an order for your hyper-specific brother’s 21st birthday present.

You might even have got into the habit of ‘media multitasking’ — watching Peaky Blinders on the TV while aimlessly scrolling TikTok on your phone, jumping between the two as the mood takes you.

These particular instances may be me-specific but the general pattern — dividing your attention between two or more tasks in order to fit them all in at once, whether from external pressure or internal need — is very familiar.

It can feel, too, as though you are wringing more from the time allotted to you by filling it with as much as possible.

But psychologists have actually argued for years that what we’re doing isn’t multitasking at all – it’s called rapid task-switching.

And some say the process is wearing us out.

It might seem like you’re ticking multiple things off at the same time but really you’re quickly shifting your focus and attention between tasks.

So you’re jumping between that email and your colleague, or shifting your focus back and forth between the sink and your mum and how much you’re willing to spend on a white T-shirt.

This jumping back and forth has been the focus of many cognitive psychologists’ research, particularly looking at its impact on productivity.

From a productivity standpoint, a lot of research goes against multitasking.

Despite perhaps feeling like you are moving faster and more efficiently, some research suggests you’re actually slowing down as response time slows when you switch, which is reflected in brain patterns.

In some cases, it is thought to make you more distracted (though the research is divided on this point) and can exacerbate stress.

Media multitasking in particular has a bad rap.

This study found that simultaneous texting, TV and Instagram can disrupt your ability to pay attention and therefore impact your memory.

And according to a study in 2014, a higher level of media multitasking is associated with smaller grey-matter density in the anterior cingulate cortex (the part of the brain that’s associated with empathy, impulse control, emotions and decision-making).

These are all ‘task-switch costs’, which can also be described as the negative impact of switching between tasks.

They emerge because the act of switching in itself is associated with an increased mental demand.

However, it’s important to look at multitasking in context.

As tempting as it is to seek them out, there is rarely ever one definitive piece of evidence that categorises something as A Bad Thing.

While learning to focus fully on something and achieve a state of flow can be hugely beneficial (especially in work contexts), the things that pull us in several different directions at any given moment are often beyond our control.

More to the point, there are scenarios where task-switching can actually enhance, not inhibit the mind.

By jumping between tasks you can ‘incubate’ a problem you’re stuck on and unlock it when not looking directly at it.

Of course, if one of the tasks can be done ‘mindlessly’ (like listening to music while running or doodling during a lecture), it can actually be motivating.

Of all the research into how multitasking affects comprehension, none has shown any observable impact on people’s ability to understand what they are reading.

There is even some emerging evidence that multitasking can increase mental activity and therefore boost creativity.

The important thing here is the context in which you are multitasking — it can be a strategic behaviour to help you accomplish your goals or it can be a self-regulatory failure.

As academics, Agnieszka Popławska, Ewa Szumowska and Jakub Kuś argue: “People multitask in order to attain their professional and academic goals (and the tasks that serve these goals), but they also do so to avoid boredom, satisfy the need for social contact, or to feel more diligent.”

If forging friendships is more important to you than work emails at any given moment, who’s to say that multitasking by chatting while you draft an email isn’t productive?

The answer, then, is to beware of the pitfalls of multitasking.

If you’re having a stressful day and trying to get everything done at once, you are likely self-sabotaging and wearying yourself, which will only compound any anxiety.

Equally, if you have no choice but to somehow do two things at once, that’s hardly going to be the death of your brain.

The most important thing to work out is why you’re multitasking in the first place and let your motivation direct you as to whether it is a concern or something to embrace.

To be entirely focused on one thing at all times feels impossible — many of us are beholden to other forces and deadlines that shape our work and social lives.

But by unpicking why you are doing it and how it makes you feel — efficient, dazed, out of control – you can shape how you respond to it, whether that means leaving your phone in another room for two hours or just accepting that you want to funnel two screens into your eyes at once today, even if it’s not the best idea.

*Sadhbh O’Sullivan is a writer and editor specialising in living, women’s health, digital culture and LGBTQ+ issues at Refinery29.

This article first appeared at refinery29.com.

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