Is multi-tasking a myth?


Britons are increasingly overlapping their media habits - tapping out e-mails while watching TV, reading a paper while answering texts from friends. But, asks Hugh Wilson, does media multi-tasking mean instead of doing a few things well, we are just doing more things badly?

I was watching a documentary the other day about an educational issue that - as the father of a child about to start his first year at school - held more than a passing interest.

At the same time, I was actively participating in a three-way text message conversation about the coming weekend.

It's fair to say that, by the end of the evening, I had only a vague understanding of the message of the documentary and the weekend remained largely unplanned. I had multi tasked, but I hadn't done it particularly well.

Still, I was only doing what comes naturally, at least if the latest report from media regulator Ofcom is to be believed.

According to the Ofcom analysis, the average Briton spends seven hours a day watching or using media. But that figure rises to nearly nine hours when you squeeze in time many of us now spend using several devices at once.

Start Quote

Our minds are divided: between TV, and home life. Instead of doing one thing well, we're doing several half-heartedly”

End Quote Damon Young Author, Distraction

So we watch telly while surfing the net, or continually check Facebook updates while writing a report, or send instant messages while talking on a mobile phone.

Of course, people have been reading while listening to the radio for years, but the increase in multi-tasking seems to be different. Philosopher Damon Young, author of Distraction, says that we've become habituated to checking e-mails and texts, and turn towards the "safe novelty" of Facebook rather than the important but tricky stuff of real life.

"And it's often required by employers, or work culture," he adds. "Good employees must be 'available'… (even) after hours and on weekends."

Indeed, media multi-tasking sounds, at first glance, like a boon for productivity. If we can do two things at once, we can do twice the amount in the same length of time, or the same amount in half the time. Either way, it's a nifty trick.

But it's not quite as simple as that, as my frustrating evening demonstrated. A raft of studies has found that, actually, multi-tasking is a good way to do several things badly.

For example, studies by Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, have found that when people are continually distracted from one task, they work faster but produce less.

Another found that students solving a maths puzzle took 40% longer - and suffered more stress - when they were made to multi-task.

Clumsy switching

And researchers at Stanford University found that regular multi-taskers are actually quite bad at it. In a series of tests that required switching attention from one task to another, heavy multi-task had slower response times than those who rarely multi tasked.

Driving and talking Human genius - arguing while changing through the gears

What that suggests, the researchers say, is that multi-task are more easily distracted by irrelevant information. The more we multi-task, the less we are able to focus properly on just one thing.

Damon Young thinks where media and communications are concerned, we're not made for multi-tasking.

"When we move from our job to an e-mail, it takes about a minute to recover our train of thought," he says. "And then we get another e-mail, or an SMS, so our concentration is fractured. The result? We're not really multi-tasking. We're switching between tasks in an unfocused or clumsy way."

And unfocused can mean unproductive. US studies have shown that students who do homework while watching television get consistently lower grades.

Yet, in other areas, we seem to be dab hands at multi-tasking. We can walk and talk, after all. And if that sounds a bit simplistic, we can also control a large slab of speeding metal while holding an intelligent conversation with the person in the passenger seat.

Mirror, signal, sing-a-long

Some of this, says Professor John Duncan, a behavioural neuroscientist at Cambridge University, is down to practice. When you're learning to drive, changing gear takes all your focus. When you've been driving for 10 years, you can change gear, check your mirrors and sing along to the radio, all at the same time.

So some familiar tasks are easier to do simultaneously. In that respect, our brains are brilliant parallel processors. But according to Professor Duncan, that's usually the case only if the tasks are sufficiently different.

How best to 'multi-task'

If you want to be productive it's best not to multi-task at all, says Dave Crenshaw, a productivity coach and author of The Myth of Multitasking.

"When people attempt to multi-task, what they are really doing is switching rapidly back and forth between tasks, what I call 'switchtasking'. These switches cause people to lose time, and be incredibly less productive."

If you have to multi-task, at least try and take control of your technology.

"Your mobile phone ringer doesn't need to be on all the time. You can turn off computer e-mail notification as well. Become master over the nagging beeps and buzzes by creating some silence."

Crenshaw also says we should schedule times to switch our attention, rather than doing it randomly or from habit.

"Set regular times in the day and week to check your email and voicemail. If you participate actively in social media, as I do, have set times where you can focus on it."

"There were experiments in the 50s when subjects were played two speech messages at the same time, and were asked to concentrate on one," he says. "It's quite amazing how little they took in from the other one."

Amazing, but as it turns out, quite logical. "The brain has very specialised modules for different tasks, like language processing and spatial recognition. It stands to reason that two similar tasks are much harder to do simultaneously, because they're using similar bits of tissue."

Neuropsychologist Professor Keith Laws says genuine high-level multi-tasking is impossible in humans.

"The general understanding people have of multi-tasking is a bit of a misnomer. I've never seen any examples of anyone who can do three or even two intelligent tasks simultaneously," says Prof Laws.

Which is probably why we seem to have trouble multi-tasking with media. Driving and talking doesn't use the same bits of brain. Answering an e-mail while chatting on the phone does. In effect, we are creating information bottlenecks.

"What we really mean by multi-tasking," says Prof Laws, "is the ability to plan and devise strategies to do all the tasks we have to do and navigate our way through them."

But if consuming a plethora of media at one time is impossible there is evidence some people are better than others at switching between them rapidly.

And there is some truth in the adage that women outperform men in this, says Prof Laws - although the weight of evidence is by no means as strong as many people assume.

Last month he reported back on an experiment which, he claims, provides the first concrete evidence women are better multi-taskers than men. Until then, the belief had been just that - a belief.

"Until now the theory has largely been folklore," he says, "[It's] a bit like the folklore which perpetuates the belief that men are better at concentrating on one task at a time."

Below is a selection of your comments.

Surely it all depends on what you are watching on TV and what the other task is that you are doing. For instance, watching a football match or a music video does not need the same attention as a documentary; so watching football and texting is easy to do, or keep up to date on Facebook, Twitter or whatever. However, trying to help a small child do something, and watching a documentary is not on.

Keith B, Leicester

Wel,l I can listen and speak in a conversation while I type this. But I can't really concentrate on what words to type and lay the words down accurately if I am consciously engaged in listening and speaking. The focus switches between the "tasks" very rapidly. But it does switch - which means I am serial-tasking with the appearance of multi-tasking. Where people say they can't multi-task, I believe they are saying they can't switch focus quickly.

Sandy Fox, Derby, UK

I do think that as a culture, our ability to absorb information and switch between sources, and tasks, has greatly increased over the past century. I was struck by the article earlier this week about the woman, 114 years ago, who was killed by a car going at 4 mph, because she couldn't process her perceptions quickly enough to take a life-saving step or two to the side.

Olivia Strand, Bristol, UK

Have children and a family and you have to learn to multi-task. Only a woman would really understand that. Who really cares about email and Twitter and voice mail. There is another, much more important, side to life than being a nerdy business obsessive. Half of what is wrong with society in the 21st century is that no-one knows how to communicate any more without sitting in front of a screen.

Jenny, London

When suggested that female colleagues are better at multitasking I have acquiesced, but suggested that of the 3 things they are doing 2 of them are gossiping and thinking about shoes...

Andrew, Bedford

I think it's interesting that most (not all) of the people in your report - and the journalist himself - are male, and they seem to conclude that multi-tasking is probably not possible to do successfully, or at least over-rated. But ask many women, who sucessfully do it all the time, and you'd probably get very different answers. Depends who you ask, and what tasks they're doing.

Janet Granger, Staffs

It is certainly a myth that women are better at multi-tasking. I have selflessly devoted my adult life to a close observation research exercise called marriage. What happens in "multi-tasking" is that women don't actually finish what they started before they become distracted by something else (the phone ringing, the kettle boiling, a conversation, a domestic appliance ending its cycle with a beep etc). As a result they accumulate a number of objects as they revolve around (mixing bowl in hands, phone under chin, foot holding fridge door open etc) which give a superficial impresson of doing several things at once. In fact they are doing one thing at a time with several things held in part suspension as reminders of what they have to come back to.

Ken Charmanq, Wokingham

Working as a receptionist and admin assistant often requires "switchtasking" as the phone will ring, or someone will require my attention - on top of the demands of those senior to me with their admin support requests. I have to work hard to prioritise my tasks efficiently. Attempting to multitask does ultimately slow down my productivity and I get less work satisfaction from trying as I constantly feel snowed under!

Laura, Manchester

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