Five Reasons We Multitask Anyway
Frequent multitaskers are bad at it. So why do they do it?
Posted May 31, 2010
In my last post, I argued that multitasking was like "Mining Your Inner Moron," arguing that it's inefficient, ineffective, and stressful. But why do we try to do it anyway? Here are some possibilities:
1) Employers think they need people who can multitask.
2) It's so convenient - I mean, it's right there in your hands.
3) We've become impatient.
Are you old enough to remember when we had to go all the way to the library to find out something we didn't know? And we had to locate books on shelves and then look in the index and turn pages to find what we were looking for? Now, we just need to enter a word or two in Google. And we're so used to instantaneous digital searching that we can no longer even fathom the idea of dial-up Internet access. These days, if we're listening to someone who's a slow talker, we check our email in the pauses. . . . Productivity and creativity require intense focus. But if we can't tolerate that quiet concentration anymore, we've got something at our fingertips to fill any quiet moment.
4) We are convinced that the bad rap on multitasking is a hoax perpetrated by oldsters, who just don't get it.
Every older generation has foreseen the swift decline of civilization in whatever young people were doing. Can it be that kids, who have used computers all their lives, are different—that their brains function differently? In one sense younger people are better multitaskers. That's because working memory, which is important for keeping the other task in mind when you're switching back and forth, peaks at the age of 25. So, with a larger working memory capacity, young people don't lose as much information every time they switch. But they still lose information and slow themselves down.
5) People are bored.
A saying I've found all over the web goes:
"Multitasking is the art of distracting yourself from two things you'd rather not be doing by doing them simultaneously."
I think this is one reason why multitasking is so popular. We don't feel like doing that work, so we watch TV at the same time to make it seem less tedious. The problem is, it takes us longer to do the work, and we do it poorly. Plus, we don't really enjoy the TV show because we keep missing the best parts. . . .
So why not record the show, while you concentrate on your work. Then, if you watch the show and skip the commercials, you may actually come out ahead in time as well as in the quality of the work and your enjoyment of the entertainment experience.
Is the Internet making us dumber or smarter? See my next post, "The Fault, Dear Brutus, Is Not in Our Gadgets But in Ourselves."
. . .
In a later post, I'll talk about techniques for approaching students who are wedded to their gadgets and have never known life without multitasking. In the meantime, for more strategies for reducing multitasking and achieving more with less effort, check out Conquer CyberOverload.
 Gloria Mark, in Pattison, K. (2008). Worker, interrupted: The cost of task-switching. http://www.fastcompany.com/articles/2008/07/interview-gloria-mark.html
  Klingberg, T. (2009). The overflowing brain: Information overload and the limits of working memory. (Translated by Neil Betteridge). London: Oxford University Press.
 Ophir, E., Nass, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0903620106