Multitasking refers to the art of doing two tasks simultaneously. It is believed to be a desirable skill in a fast-paced world, but has also been critiqued for causing high cognitive load and decreasing task performance (Calderwood et al., 2014; Rosen, 2008; Salvucci & Taatgen, 2010).
The term originates from computer processing, referring to the ability of a machine to execute more than one task at the same time.
Today, however, this concept tends to describe human behavior, where an individual engages in multiple tasks simultaneously or alternates rapidly between tasks.
Rresearch has shown that humans don’t actually conduct multiple cognitive tasks at the same time, despite the perception (Rosen, 2008). Instead, we switch our attention from one task to another very rapidly, giving the illusion of simultaneous multitasking. This act of rapidly shifting attention tends to cause high cognitive load and lead to exhaustion and errors.
Types of Multitasking
Multitasking encompasses several different methods of task management, falling into four general categories: concurrent, serial, background, and cognitive multitasking.
- Concurrent multitasking refers to carrying out multiple tasks simultaneously. You might see a chef preparing multiple dishes at a time, carefully monitoring each process (Calderwood et al., 2014).
- Serial multitasking involves switching between tasks quickly. An example is a driver changing the radio station while keeping an eye on the road and handling the steering wheel (Carrier et al., 2015).
- Background multitasking allows one task to run in the “background” while a person focuses on another task. An instance is listening to music while writing a report, where the music serves as background stimulus but does not require active attention.
- Cognitive multitasking is different as it involves handling or thinking about multiple cognitive tasks simultaneously, which is usually discouraged (Carrier et al., 2015). An example might be a student trying to work on a math problem while writing an English essay (which would likely result in errors in one or both tasks).
Each of these forms of multitasking presents its own challenges and benefits, but they all require substantial cognitive effort. They also all carry the potential for divided attention and mistakes, especially when the tasks require high levels of cognitive engagement.
1. Cooking a Full Meal (Type – Concurrent): Preparing multiple dishes simultaneously is a common example of concurrent multitasking. This could involve chopping vegetables, monitoring pots on the stove, and checking the oven, all at the same time. This method maximizes kitchen productivity, but the downside is the high potential for mistakes due to divided attention. One can forget a key ingredient or overcook a dish while attending to another.
2. Online Meeting and Email Response (Type – Serial): Switching between listening to an online work meeting and responding to professional emails is a form of serial multitasking. It may seem efficient as you appear to get two tasks done at once, but the quality of work may suffer. Attention to both tasks is split, making it difficult to contribute effectively to the meeting or respond comprehensively to emails.
3. Driving and Listening to an Audiobook (Type – Background): While driving, some people listen to audiobooks. Here, the primary task is operating the vehicle safely, while the audiobook runs in the background. It has the advantage of enhancing the driving experience or making it more enjoyable without subtracting from the primary focus (driving). However, in intense traffic or complex driving conditions, the audiobook can become a distraction.
4. Studying while Watching Television (Type – Cognitive): It’s not uncommon for students to engage in cognitive multitasking like studying for an exam while watching TV. This is typically not advisable as both tasks demand high cognitive engagement. The act of studying necessitates attention to detail and comprehension, which TV-watching undermines with constant stimulus and calls for processing new information. The result could be poor understanding and retention of studied materials (Calderwood et al., 2014).
5. Conference Call and Sketch Noting (Type – Concurrent): Business professionals often engage in concurrent multitasking during conference calls by making sketch notes. The visual act of sketching information can support cognitive processing and assist in memory retention. However, the risk is that complex information could be missed or misinterpreted if the attention is significantly divided between the call and the sketching process.
6. Social Media Scrolling and Online Shopping (Type – Serial): Serial multitasking is common online, such as when one alternates between scrolling through a social media feed and browsing in an online store. While it might offer a sort of entertainment variety, constantly switching between the two tasks could lead to an oversight like missing an essential post or wrongly ordering an item.
7. Listening to Background Music while Writing an Essay (Type – Background): It’s quite typical for students to listen to music while writing essays, thinking it aids concentration. As a form of background multitasking, it can indeed provide a pleasant background that doesn’t require active engagement. However, if the music is too loud, contains lyrics, or differs significantly from the individual’s usual taste, it can become a distraction and reduce the quality of the writing.
8. Planning a Vacation while Working on a Budget (Type – Cognitive): Attempting to plan a vacation while concurrently working on a home budget falls under cognitive multitasking. This is generally not recommended as both tasks require significant mental focus and calculating abilities. Mistakes are likely to happen in either or both activities, such as overlooking a cost item in the budget, or making wrong travel bookings.
9. Juggling Multiple Patients (Type – Concurrent): Healthcare professionals often engage in concurrent multitasking, such as when a nurse monitors multiple patients at once. This practice can enhance efficiency, allowing the nurse to attend to more patients in a shorter time frame. However, the risk is high, as divided attention could lead to mistakes or oversights with serious health consequences.
10. Writing a Report and Checking Stock Market (Type – Serial): An investment professional may switch between writing a financial report and checking the stock market. This serial multitasking may seem efficient, enabling the individual to stay updated while also producing work. However, rapidly switching focus can lead to reduced accuracy in both the report and the interpretation of market trends.
11. Running on a Treadmill and Watching the News (Type – Background): People often watch television while doing physical exercises like walking or running on a treadmill. As an example of background multitasking, this act provides entertainment without detracting from the primary task. The only risk is that intensive news topics can stimulate emotional reactions, which might impact the workout rhythm.
12. Math Homework and Composing a Poem (Type – Cognitive): A student who tries to solve math problems while composing a poem is engaged in cognitive multitasking, which requires splitting one’s cognitive attention between two complex, unrelated tasks. Such multitasking typically hinders productivity and quality of work, potentially leading to both incorrect calculations and a fragmented poem.
13. Gardening and Supervising Kids (Type – Concurrent): An adult could be pulling weeds or planting while keeping an eye on children playing nearby. As a form of concurrent multitasking, it allows for efficiency in completing household chores while ensuring the safety of the kids. The downside is that serious accidents can happen in a split second if the supervising adult is too absorbed in the task at hand and gets momentarily distracted.
14. Program Coding and Software Debugging (Type – Serial): A software developer may switch between writing new program codes and debugging existing programs. This kind of serial multitasking can lead to productivity in a time-pressured environment. However, it can also result in overlooked coding errors and insufficient debugging due to the rapidly alternating focus.
15. Listening to Podcasts while Doing Laundry (Type – Background): Many people listen to informational podcasts as they perform routine tasks like doing laundry. As a form of background multitasking, it can make the chore more enjoyable and educational. However, if the podcast contains complex discussions, it might distract from properly sorting, washing, or folding the clothes, or vice versa.
16. Revising An Article while Brainstorming for Another (Type – Cognitive): An author might try to revise one article while brainstorming ideas for a new one. This type of cognitive multitasking usually hinders both the revision process and the generation of quality ideas. Insufficient attention to detail in the revision could lead to overlooked errors, while distraction from brainstorming could result in limited or superficial ideas for the new article.
17. Sales Event and Customer Interaction (Type – Concurrent): A retail salesperson often manages multiple customer interactions while ensuring the smooth operation of a promotional event. This type of multitasking can be challenging, especially during peak shopping hours when customer demands intensify, but can also stimulate a dynamic sales environment and potentially drive up revenue.
18. Online Discussion and Document Review (Type – Serial): Switching between an online discussion and reviewing a related document is a common practice in digital workspaces. While this type of serial multitasking enables quick information sharing and feedback, constant attention shift can reduce comprehension and feedback quality.
19. Reading a Book and Listening to Instrumental Music (Type – Background): Many people love to supplement reading with ambient or instrumental music. As a form of background multitasking, this combination often enriches the reading experience and supports concentration, unless the music becomes too intrusive or the book too demanding, which could mean only one can be effectively engaged with.
20. Studying Two Different Subjects simultaneously (Type – Cognitive): Trying to study for a history exam while solving chemistry equations is an instance of cognitive multitasking. The task switches between unrelated contexts and cognitive demands, likely resulting in both poor historical understanding and incorrect chemical calculations.
21. Tutoring and Lesson Planning (Type – Concurrent): A private tutor might be teaching one student while planning the next session for another. A concurrent form of multitasking, it can utilize time effectively allowing for immediate implementation of planned lessons. However, divided attention could result in overlooking a student’s difficulty in learning or a poorly-constructed plan for the next session.
22. Navigating Traffic and Changing the Radio Station (Type – Serial): It’s common for drivers to adjust music or other devices while focusing on traffic, a form of serial multitasking. It keeps the driving experience enjoyable but can be dangerous if the secondary task draws too much attention away from the primary task of safe driving.
23. Working Out and Monitoring Heart Rate (Type – Background): Many fitness enthusiasts monitor their heart rate while engaging in workouts. It’s a form of background multitasking allowing them to optimize their exercise intensity. But if the exercise is particularly demanding, they may neglect proper monitoring, leading to potential health risks.
24. Preparing a Speech while Checking Emails (Type – Cognitive): This example of cognitive multitasking might seem efficient on the surface but usually results in reduced quality in both tasks. Important nuances for the speech can be missed or poorly constructed, and emails might be misunderstood or improperly responded to due to divided attention.
25. Managing Employee Performance and Organizing Company Events (Type – Concurrent): An HR manager might oversee employee productivity while planning corporate events. This concurrent multitasking can ensure efficient operations but could risk neglecting details in performance reports or event planning, meaning both aspects might suffer.
Pros and Cons of Multitasking
The benefits and drawbacks of multitasking vary. On the positive side, multitasking can increase stimulation and reduce boredom, particularly when performing routine tasks. However, the downsides may include reduced concentration, higher levels of stress and mistakes due to divided attention.
Multitasking skills are often required in today’s fast-paced environment. However, it’s important to recognize when multitasking is beneficial and when it’s actually detrimental to the task at hand. For instance, while it’s possible to listen to a podcast whilst doing house chores, trying to respond to emails while attending a meeting could lead to mistakes and misunderstanding.
|Pros of Multitasking
|Cons of Multitasking
|– Can handle multiple tasks at once when they don’t require full focus.
|– Often leads to reduced efficiency for complex tasks (Rosen, 2008).
|– Can save time when tasks are simple and routine (Schuch et al., 2019).
|– Can waste time due to the constant task-switching.
|– Can train the brain to process information more rapidly.
|– Can decrease focus, leading to decreased comprehension (Schuch et al., 2019).
|– Some jobs require simultaneous handling of tasks (Watson & Strayer, 2010).
|– Quality might be compromised in jobs requiring deep concentration.
|– Encourages adaptability and flexibility (Mark, 2022).
|– Might reduce deep work skills or focused attention span.
|– Some people feel productive when juggling tasks.
|– Can lead to increased stress and decreased job satisfaction.
|– May improve handling of distractions for some people (Watson & Strayer, 2010).
|– Divides attention, leading to potential mistakes (Carrier et al., 2015).
|– In some scenarios, can enhance skill diversification.
|– Reduces the depth of learning and understanding.
|– Quick identification of mistakes in parallel processes.
|– Increases the likelihood of errors due to divided attention.
|– Some individuals thrive under the pressure of handling multiple tasks.
|– Can increase mental fatigue and stress (Rosen, 2008).
Criticisms of Multitasking Theory
The efficacy of multitasking is a topic of debate. While it can sometimes increase productivity, studies indicate that switching rapidly between tasks can decrease accuracy and efficiency (Rosen, 2008).
This can be understood through the example of a student attempting to study for an exam while continually checking their social media feed (Calderwood et al., 2014). The cognitive shift from deep learning to the superficial engagement of social media can result in inadequate comprehension and retention of study materials.
Multitasking is a common practice that has both positive and negative aspects. It’s crucial to assess individual capabilities and the specific demands of each task to determine the best approach, whether it be targeted focus or a multitasking method.
Calderwood, C., Ackerman, P. L., & Conklin, E. M. (2014). What else do college students “do” while studying? An investigation of multitasking. Computers & Education, 75, 19-29.
Carrier, L. M., Rosen, L. D., Cheever, N. A., & Lim, A. F. (2015). Causes, effects, and practicalities of everyday multitasking. Developmental Review, 35, 64-78. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2014.12.005
Mark, G. (2022). Multitasking in the digital age. New York: Springer Nature.
Rosen, C. (2008). The myth of multitasking. The New Atlantis, (20), 105-110. Doi: https://www.jstor.org/stable/43152412
Salvucci, D. D., & Taatgen, N. A. (2010). The multitasking mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schuch, S., Dignath, D., Steinhauser, M., & Janczyk, M. (2019). Monitoring and control in multitasking. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 26, 222-240. doi: https://doi.org/10.3758/s13423-018-1512-z
Watson, J. M., & Strayer, D. L. (2010). Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 17, 479-485. Doi: https://doi.org/10.3758/PBR.17.4.479
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]