Is multi-tasking ever a good idea?

This photo just made me laugh out loud. Potholes aside, this Kansas area man demonstrates just how much we can achieve when we put our minds to it…

In all seriousness, much has been written about the myth of multi-tasking. Indeed, the research shows that we are deluding ourselves if we think that we can perform two things as well or as quickly if we attempt to do them simultaneously rather than separately. And, in some situations – like texting while driving – this false sense of competence can have disastrous consequences.

On the other hand, not all forms of multi-tasking are equally bad/futile – it really depends on what the tasks are. For example, there’s apparently no harm in listening to classical music while reading.

Do you try to multi-task? Ask yourself…

1) Do you have the option of completing the tasks serially rather than in parallel?

2) Can one of the activities be performed on auto-pilot with minimal risk to yourself or others (e.g., walking)? Note: when it comes to driving or biking, the answer is clearly ‘no’.

3) Are the two activities quite different from one another (e.g. knitting and running), or is there too much interference between them (e.g. watching TV while writing a paper)?

4) What are your goals, and how high are the stakes? When I’m out hiking and listening to an audio book, I might not walk as quickly or remember as much of the book or encode my surroundings quite as carefully as if I were to engage in these activities separately, but no one is clocking my speed or testing my memory.

5) Does the secondary task make the primary task more enjoyable? You might not work quite as quickly at a café as in a library, but if you find it more enjoyable you might stay longer and ultimately get more done. Similarly, our friend from Kansas could theoretically run a faster marathon if he weren’t knitting at the same time — but if he weren’t even interested in running unless he could knit while doing it, then this would be a moot point.

I’d like to hear from you, dear readers — what forms of multi-tasking do you engage in? How successful do you feel you are?


About Silvia Bunge

I'm a tenured faculty member, and the head graduate advisor in my department.
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2 Responses to Is multi-tasking ever a good idea?

  1. anonymous says:

    In the past I would multi-task all the time, but over the last few years I’ve trained myself *not* to multi-task because I found it to be qualitatively different when I was mindfully engaging in tasks and doing one thing in the moment vs. multi-tasking. I can still switch between tasks quickly, but I can no longer do do things simultaneously (or at least do them “well” as I had previously thought I was doing). For example, I recently tried listening to a book on tape (an active activity) in the car on my commute (another active activity, hopefully!), and I found that my reaction time was slower and I also missed important details in this really interesting book! I was surprised by my difficulties given that I consider myself to be a fairly capable person and I consider driving to be a “well-learned” activity of mine. Alas, I decided to just stick with driving. If I’m not too concerned about quality or “getting” everything, then I can generally pull off multi-tasking without too many hiccups, for example, folding laundry while talking on the phone (two dreaded tasks so might as well pair them together 😉

  2. Pingback: Multi-tasking during class: Not worth it | Cal Psych Ph.D. Navigator

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