We Exaggerate our Multitasking Abilities

Take a moment and give yourself a Multitask Rating from 1 to 10. Let’s say a score of 1 goes to the utterly hopeless multitasker and 10 goes to the mental black belt of the divided mind. Can you read email while conversing with a friend; book a plane ticket during the board meeting; do your homework and still pay attention to that movie; or text your friends while driving to let them know you’re “almost there?” Many of you will quickly answer yes to those questions without giving it a second thought.

You find yourself regularly multitasking at home, school and work and think it’s no big deal. And oh, how we love our technology! It enables us to manage so much more in the palm of our hands. These tools work so well that we forget to ask ourselves if the multitasking is helping or hindering. Can we truly be more productive when multitasking and still produce the same quality work?  

Most likely you know where this is going, but I’m going to say it anyway: NO – well, mostly. Very few individuals are capable of simultaneously completing more than one task at a time, even when the activities appear simple in nature.

A classic example is driving while talking on the phone. Only about 2.5% of drivers show absolutely no decrease in level of performance while talking on the phone. Certain types of tasks can indeed be combined to minimize interference, but evidence suggests that most people don’t naturally adapt by choosing those combinations. There is also evidence that the same people who often engage in media multitasking report higher rates of attention failure; they are also more susceptible to distraction from the environment.

1034031447_81f8701808_oYou might be reading and thinking, “Hmm, I multitask a lot and I’m pretty good at it.  I am sure that I fit into that 2.5% that he’s talking about.” Well, chances are that you – and especially you – are not in that 2.5%. In a 2013 study, people who reported HIGHER rates of media multitasking and cell phone driving performed WORSE on measures of multitasking ability than those who tend to avoid it. It also showed that high-frequency multitaskers tend to think of themselves as better multitaskers. And if that’s not enough already, MOST PEOPLE in the study rated themselves as above average multitaskers, which is of course impossible.

If our multitasking behaviors are failing us the way these studies suggest, what are they doing to our children? We try to multitask under the false impression that it will save us time, but children and adolescents multitask because their social environment demands it of them. When an adolescent’s concentration can be so easily hijacked at the simple chime or vibration of a text message, parents begin to wonder how to stop the cascade of interruption. First things first: get your own scattered habits under control. Stay tuned for more on ways you can limit multitasking in your own life and in your child’s.

Ok, so we can’t have it all…at least not at the same time. You just have to take an honest look at whether and when multitasking can hurt you (or others!) Does your multitasking put you and others at risk of personal injury (driving while texting)? Will your quality of work suffer (emailing while on a teleconference)? Are you alienating your spouse or children (eyes glued to your smartphone during family outings)? Perhaps we should honestly ask ourselves: Is constant multitasking relieving stress or increasing our stress levels? What do you think?

Image Credits: Ryan Ritchie and Mike Licht

3 thoughts on “We Exaggerate our Multitasking Abilities

  1. Kelly says:

    Of course we Exaggerate our Multitasking Abilities!!!

    It’s like eating everything on your plate in one sitting; you will finish eventually but by eating one bite at a time.

    I, personally, am always multitasking for two reasons:

    1) in order to provide the appearance of being capable and competent; and
    2) to ‘chip away’ at larger tasks to keep busy because there is always a lot to do.

    However, I am proud to give each task my full attention in order to provide the best quality product.

    As busy as I like to be, I enjoy reading only one book at a time. I even gave birth to my three children ten years apart so that I could give each one my undivided attention. Taking things one at a time is just – more enjoyable – in every way!



  2. Elliott L. Conklin, Psy.D. says:

    Thanks for reading! The dinner plate is a great analogy. What we refer to casually as “multitasking” is actually a form of attention called “rapid shifting.” We are never actually thinking or doing two things at the same time, but rather shifting back and forth between them. Some are better at rapid shifting than others, but no one is actually doing it all at the same time.


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