I often hear female family members and friends proudly announcing – usually in front of their husbands or partners – their “innate” skills at multitasking. This invariably prompts a playful exchange of views about how women are “natural” multitaskers and men find it hard to focus on more than one thing at a time. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines multitasking as “A person’s ability to do more than one thing at a time” with a surprising footnote that supports the above assumption “Women are often very good at multitasking”. But is this true? Is there such a thing as multitasking, and how is our performance affected when we are simultaneously paying attention to our computers, smart phones, iPads, and urgent tasks we need to complete by the end of the day?
In our culture, there is certainly a perception that people can successfully multitask and a belief that the more we do it the more efficient at it we become. After all, most of us would say we are multitasking many times during the day. So what are the motivations behind all our multitasking? In her blog article “Beyond Simple Multi-Tasking: Continuous Partial Attention,” Linda Stone, writer and consultant, makes a distinction between simple multitasking and what cognitive scientists refer to as “complex multitasking” to explain her theory of Continuous Partial Attention (CPA). In simple multitasking, each task is given the same priority. One task may even be routine, like stirring pasta while talking to our spouse. Stone claims the driving force in simple multitasking is to be more productive. In complex multitasking, the motivation is not to miss anything by maintaining a field of CPA. As Stone explains, “In the case of continuous partial attention, we’re motivated by a desire not to miss anything. We’re engaged in two activities that both demand cognition.” One of these cognitive tasks may also seem more important than another, requiring our brains to be focused on it while remaining alert to the several other less important cognitive tasks requiring our attention. Stone continues, “When we do this, we may have the feeling that our brains process multiple activities in parallel. Researchers say that while we can rapidly shift between activities, our brains process serially.”
Indeed, neuroscientists are discovering that different parts of the brain are switching on and off, resulting in the serial processing that Stone refers to. This switching happens so fast that it appears we are performing multiple tasks simultaneously. Therefore the dictionary definition of multitasking as “A person’s ability to do more than one thing at a time” doesn’t reflect how our brains function. When we try to do several complex tasks at the same time we are rapidly switching back and forth between each task with some of us in an unfulfilled state of continuous partial attention.
So what exactly is the data derived from recent research in the field of multitasking showing? Dr Clifford Nass, Professor of Communication at Stanford University, carried out a study on the performance levels of extreme multitaskers in the student population. Contrary to the fact that most multitaskers think they are extremely good at it, the results of Nass’s studies raised concerns: “It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking! They get distracted constantly. Their memory is very disorganised. Recent work we’ve done suggests that they’re worse at analytic reasoning. We worry that it may be we’re creating people who may not be able to think well and clearly.”
Stone’s theory of CPA is supported in the article “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers” by Eyal Ophir, Clifford Nass and Anthony D. Wagner. The abstract of their study states the following surprising findings: “that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set.” It is important to note Stone’s CPA is not multitasking; rather she is referring to the kind of attention we hold while we are complex multitasking. Maintaining our attention in this state of hyper-vigilance keeps our fight or flight response activated. According to Stone, some people will feel alive, on top of things and connected. She concedes this can serve us well at times. However, Stone claims the shadow side of being on continuous, continuous partial attention (CCPA) is a constant activation of the fight or flight response. The complex multitasker is in a continuous state of overstimulation with a perpetual feeling of lack of fulfilment that can lead to stress-related diseases.
So empirical evidence supports the view that multitasking is a myth. The word points to something that at best can be viewed as individual tasks being performed through a very rapid switching back and forth to match the way our brains function or through continuous partial attention. Research, particularly in the field of neuroscience, indicates that continuously trying to do several complex tasks at the same time can negatively affect performance and lead to increased levels of stress. Therefore, the quality of our lives and our health may depend on our ability to efficiently switch our attention from one task to another. Importantly, it will also depend on our ability to learn how to deal with any distractions from the task that requires our attention in this moment.
If you are struggling with your work load and want to improve your skills at efficiently switching your attention please get in touch to find out how I can help you. Christine Griffin – Executive Coach – firstname.lastname@example.org – +44 (0)7796 147127 – www.griffinity.co.uk