Updated: Apr 29, 2021
Laura Naikauskiene, FSP, MA, MSc is certified Swiss FSP Psychologist and Cognitive Scientist. She is improving productivity and psychological well-being of the global workforce.
In today’s fast-moving world multitasking — the phenomenon of juggling multiple actions simultaneously — has become an inescapable part of modern society and is deeply ingrained in people’s personal and professional life. Due to high expectations for individual performance and productivity as well as broadening of work roles, nearly every job now requires good multitasking skills (1). Such occupations as pilots, process operators, traffic controllers, drivers or knowledge workers engage in constant multitasking while carrying out their work tasks and duties (2).
Very often, if not always, multitasking at work is tightly connected with use of different medium (i.e. meetings, e-mails, company bulletins and newspapers, telephones, internet etc.). In this case use of one or few mediums become separate tasks in multitasking situation, like in a situation when employee is reading companies newsletter during the weekly team meeting. This is just one among many existing examples on how media and communication are linked with multitasking. In addition, results from different researches suggest that the spread of communication and information devices may facilitate and even enhance multitasking at work (3).
Multitasking Questions and Research
Multitasking research history started with the psychology studies (4), but since then many other disciplines also became interested in this question: i.e. communication and IT studies (5) or human factor research. Very often multitasking is studied by cognitive scientists (3) devoted to the explanation of processes involved in multitasking and consequences of multitasking activities (6). Important input is also provided by organizational behavior studies concerned with individual differences in multitasking, work related outcomes and multitasking in groups (3). Nevertheless, until just recently a research of complex multitasking situations (including activities at work) was thought of as not easy accessible to current methods of experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience. New findings from neuropsychology suggest that multitasking relies on a relatively discrete number of mental processes and involves specific brain regions responsible for multitasking implementation (7).
Multitasking: Are We Really Doing It?
Multitasking can be defined as human’s ability to accomplish “multiple task goals in the same time by engaging in frequent switches between individual tasks” (8). In some cases, instead of this term some researchers use such expressions as “task-switching” or “concurrent task management”, but they all refer to the same phenomena. Nevertheless, multitasking should not be confused with polychronicity, because the former presents behavior and the later — individual’s preference for handling several tasks at the same time and a belief that this preference is a best way to have things done (9).
Actually, let`s just break down multitasking into smaller pieces to get some new insights… In any real-world multitasking situations has the following characteristics: numerous tasks, differing task characteristics, one task at a time, interleaving, delayed intentions, and interruptions. These characteristics also apply to day-to-day activities at work, where i.e. an office worker, while preparing a text document, is checking emails, talking with a colleague, and answering the phone. What happens in this example is the following: by multitasking an office worker has a goal to complete a range of different tasks (prepare a document, check the email, finish conversation and answer the phone). However, due to physical and cognitive constraints (mainly memory and attention, which I will discuss in my next blog post) she is only able to perform only one task at the time and what she really does is alternating among these tasks as appropriate (10). What is more, while executing one task, other tasks should be deferred, which mean that an office worker has some delayed intentions. And finally, the ringing telephone in this situation might be an example of interruption, which anyhow is a common circumstance at work and a cause of multitasking.
As definition and example above suggests, task-switching or task interleaving — stopping one task, starting another and then switching back to the first task and so forth — is a common strategy in multitasking. Task switching is opposite to sequential task performance, when individual starts a task, finishes it and proceeds with another one (11). In contrast to the sequential task performance, during the simultaneous task performance tasks are often very likely to interfere with each other. For instance, tasks like walking and listening to music can actually be performed together, but some tasks like talking on a phone and writing a scientific paper will highly interfere with each other. The more cognitively demanding are the tasks, the bigger will be the interference between these tasks (4).
While talking about multitasking it is also important to distinguish between conscious and unconscious multitasking. The true is that due to the cognitive demands conscious mind can perform only one task at the time (4), but during subconscious multitasking, a few tasks can be performed simultaneously. Let`s take two examples: an office worker who is talking with a colleague and answering the phone is engaging in a conscious multitasking. Whereas, a professional taxi driver with extensive driving practice, who is changing gear and moving feet on the pedals, is performing an unconscious multitasking (12). Unfortunately, this kind of simultaneous performance is only possible with highly practiced, routine tasks that are typical just in some professions (10). Although our usual office tasks like answering the phone or writing emails are repeated numerous times during the day they are not subconscious and therefore should not be done simultaneously. This is where we do get into the “Multitasking” trap.
Bitter True: Conscious Multitasking Does Not Improve Performance of a Task and Overall Effectiveness; It Is Also Costly in Terms of Our Cognitive Resources
At the first sight multitasking in a workplace could look like a successful strategy for increased individual and at the same time organizational productivity because multitasking could help to fulfill more tasks in a shorter time. Whereas psychological literature indicates, that at the individual level multitasking slows down a process of multiple task performance, reduces effectiveness and requires more cognitive effort than performance of the few single tasks sequentially (12).
I hope that I could convince you that multitasking at work is quite complex and demanding cognitive activity and perhaps is not the best strategy to shorten your To-Do-List. If not, read my next blog post where I will discuss how cognitive neuroscience explains it and what cognitive processes (namely attention, memory and executive control) are involved in multitasking activities.
1. Oberlander, E. M., Oswald, F. L., Hambrick, D. Z., & Jones, L. A. (2007). Individual Difference Variables as Predictors of Error during Multitasking, Navy Personnel Research, Studies, and Technology report, Millington
2. Haavisto, M. L., Heiskanen, T. P., Hublin, C., Harma, M., Mutanen, P., Virkkala, J., & Sallinen, M. (2009). Sleep restriction for the duration of a work week impairs multitasking performance, Journal of sleep research, 1–11
3. Spink, A. Cole, C., & Waller, M. (2008). Chapter 3: Multitasking behavior. In Croning, B. (Ed.), Annual review of Information Science and Technology, 42, 93–118.
4. Borst, J. P., Taatgen, N. A., & Van Rijn, H. (2010). The problem state: A cognitive bottleneck in multitasking. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, memory, and cognition, 36, 363–382
5. Turner, J. V., & Reinsch, N. L. (2007). The Business Communicator as Presence Allocator: Multicommunicating, Equivocality, and Status at Work Journal of Business Communication, 44; 36–58.
6. Bühner, M., König, C., Pick, M., & Krumm, S. (2006). Working memory dimensions as differential predictors of the speed and error aspect of multitasking performance. Human Performance, 19, 253–275.
7. Burgess, P. V. (2000). Real-world multitasking from a cognitive neuroscience perspective. In: Monsell, S., & Driver, J. (Eds): Control of cognitive processes: Attention and performance XVIII. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.
8. Delbridge, K. A. (2000). Individual differences in multi-tasking ability: Exploring a nomological network. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Michigan State University, East Lansing.
9. König, C. J., Bühner, M., Mürling, G. (2005). Working Memory, Fluid Intelligence, and Attention Are Predictors of Multitasking Performance, but Polychronicity and Extraversion Are not. Human performance, 18(3), 243–266.
10. Loukopoulos, L. D., Dismukes, K., & Barshi, I. (2009). The multitasking myth: handling complexity in real-world operations. Ashgate Publishing Limited: Farnham, London.
11. Dzubak, C., M. (2008). Multitasking: The good, the bad, and the unknown. The Journal of the Association for the Tutoring Profession, 1 (2), 1–2.
12. Bannister, F. & Remenyi, D. (2009). Multitasking: the Uncertain Impact of Technology on Knowledge Workers and Managers. The Electronic Journal Information Systems Evaluation, 12(1), 1-12