Effective Multitasking is an Oxymoron

By Rebecca Doser


Multitasking gives us a feeling of instant gratification. You have an urge to text someone, you grab your phone. A website ad comes up, you click on it. You want to listen to music while studying, you go to Spotify or Pandora. You want to call your boyfriend while writing an article for the school newspaper, you do it. Sound familiar? You likely think you are being efficient, but you are not.

Humans are too confident in their ability to multitask, when really only 2.5 percent of the human population can actually process tasks simultaneously. We are overestimating our ability to handle multiple tasks, a myth that researchers have proven multiple times.

We all know multitaskers. Heck, we may even be one ourselves. Katie Prue’14 and I sat together doing work one night when I noticed how impressive her multitasking seemed.

“Alright, at 7:30 we both need to stop talking so we can actually do work,” I said.

When 7:30 rolled around, we shut our mouths. I plugged in my phone away from my desk, and started work. Katie sat on my bed, put in headphones to listen to music, and began her work as well.

As I focused intently with no distractions, I glanced above the top of my laptop screen to see Katie texting, snap chatting, and grooving to the music, while working.

After an hour, she said, “Man, I’m getting so much work done right now it’s insane!”

“Same here!” I said, wondering how on earth she could possibly be accomplishing anything with constant distractions.

Try looking at it this way. The part of the brain that is switching between tasks is called the “executive system”. The brain’s frontal lobes act like a conductor of a band, demanding musicians to play in different styles: louder, softer, more staccato, faster, or slower. The difference is that the frontal lobes exert voluntary control over behavioral actions.

“I can be talking to my dad on the phone while typing something on my computer,” Prue remarks. “Obviously I’m not paying attention one-hundred percent to my dad while I’m typing something and vice-versa but it is more of the way it makes me feel accomplished than anything else.”

When Prue is doing both of these tasks simultaneously, her frontal region configures the brain to prioritize visual information on her computer while dampening down auditory information from her conversation.

“Those things are nearly impossible to do at the same time,” MIT Neuroscience Professor Earl Miller says. “You cannot focus on one while doing the other because of what’s called interference between the two tasks. They both involve communicating via speech or the written word, so there’s a lot of conflict between the two of them.”

But what about easier tasks such as walking or listening to music?

“When I’m analyzing data for my SYE, I listen to music at the same time,” Prue says. “It doesn’t require memorization or repetitive discussion in my head.”

Similarly, Miller points out that you can do a lot of things while you’re walking, an everyday action that does not require much mental thought. “Listening to music while doing another task depends on how and what exactly an individual is listening to. This determines the individual’s ability to switch back and forth between tasks.”

Unlike walking or listening to music, however, other tasks cannot be combined so easily.

Microsoft once did a study of its employees in which researchers found that after responding to emails or texts messages, workers took an average of fifteen minutes to focus back on intense mental tasks such as writing a paper.

“The human brain has a tendency to want to multitask,” Miller says. “It is really easy to fall into the trap of thinking you can take in more than one task at a time.”

So, if you still think you are a champion multitasker, think again.

“In order to prevent myself from falling into this trap of multitasking, I’ll turn off my email at times, close my office door while doing work and plan my priorities,” Miller says.

Multitasking consumes more time than you may think. People who are interrupted and therefore have to switch their attention back and forth, take fifty percent longer to accomplish a task.

“There are several reasons the brain has to switch among tasks,” Miller adds. “One is that similar tasks compete to use the same part of the brain.”

Take a moment and think of all the things you are doing right now. You are obviously reading this story, but I guarantee you are also checking your phone, glancing at your email, talking to a friend or munching on a snack. Now, stop doing all of those things and read this story again.

About the author

Rebecca Doser '16

My name is Rebecca Doser and I am a sophomore at St. Lawrence University. I am an English Creative Writing major and am involved in various extracurricular activities such as the Women's Volleyball Team, The Hill News, The St. Lawrence Review, the Thelmathesian Society, and the Student Athletic Advisory Committee