Multitasking and Efficiency

While trying to adjust to this new world we have found ourselves in, I think most people have begun to add a lot to our to-do lists. When thinking about what is relevant to psychology now, I couldn’t help but start researching what might make us more efficient in this time. One of the things I found most interesting was the psychology of multitasking, as I have never been able to keep my attention on two things at once. Although I initially thought increasing my ability to multitask would be helpful with a larger workload, I quickly learned that the opposite might be the case.


It’s important to first define multitasking, as I always thought of it as the ability to divide focus. 

This article instead defines it as either:

  1. Performing two or more tasks simultaneously
  2. Switching back and forth from one thing to another
  3. Performing a number of tasks in rapid succession.

I liked these criteria in particular as they described the multiple ways in which one phenomenon can be expressed. Each definition essentially describes a state in which our brain is quickly changing what we are thinking about, without enough time to focus our full attention on any one thing. Because we are at our best when only taking in one form of stimulus at a time, we can be more efficient if our full attention is on a single task, rather than constantly having to be readjusted. 

The research described in the article was able to show that trying to change our focus in quick succession can actually diminish our ability to complete tasks as efficiently as we could. Our brain tries to sort incoming information with what the researchers termed “mental executive functions”, which organize our mental to-do list by how, when, and in what order we should try to accomplish our tasks. They described our process of switching between two tasks (the “executive control process) as having two stages:

  1. Goal shifting, in which we pick which task we want to accomplish, and 
  2. Role activation, in which we try to understand the rules and goals for our new task. 

These two stages may be triggered by small distractions that we may not even consider to be an additional task, such as listening to music or checking a text message. This is part of the reason texting or changing the music while driving can be so dangerous. While it may seem like a quick and simple task, changing our cognitive state can create a mental block with the capacity to reduce our productivity and focus by as much as 40%. 

The part of the article I found to be the most important was the description of the effects of multitasking on brain health. Although it is often assumed that frequent multitaskers are better at sorting out important information, researchers discovered that the opposite is the case. They also found that chronic multitasking has been shown to have a negative impact on our mental organization, whether multitasking or not. When given a single task, multitaskers were still found to be less effective and efficient, indicating that their cognitive processes were completely impaired. 

Although most may believe that teens and young adults may have an advantage over older generations, due to their heavier media multitasking, research shows that they are the most vulnerable to damage in their cognitive organization. This is due to the fact that younger minds are still developing their neural connections, which may be slowed by frequent distractions. 



7 thoughts on “Multitasking and Efficiency

  1. mrodrig8

    I also use to assume multi tasking was the better and smarter way of getting things done! But this post reminded me one time during a class where the teacher had us a write down numbers 1-10 and then the letters A-J. Afterwards he wanted us to repeat the activity but write each at a time. So we’d write 1 first then on the line underneath A, then on top again we’d write 2 and the bottom as B. What surprised me is that it was easier and quicker to do it the first activity than the second. Our minds are beautiful, intelligent, but i think can be distracted very easily (cocktail phenomenon and us hearing our names) so I can now understand that multitasking ends up making situations more difficult. I try to stop myself from doing so, especially at work when i feel overwhelmed. I tell myself quality over quantity! You want the work done right, not just done.

  2. estreete

    As I was reading your post, I couldn’t help but think about my nephew. Just this morning I had my nephew in one arm and was trying to eat a bagel with the other. He likes to be rocked, so I was attempting to soothe him while eating my breakfast but I kept switching between the two tasks. Every once in a while I’d get a bite in and he’d start fussing so I’d realize that I had to rock him and put the bagel down. I know, it sounds silly! But it is also so interesting because multitasking is so challenging.

  3. tsmith24

    This article helped convince me to not multitask anymore, because when I do the results of both tasks I am focusing on do not have the best outcome. And I am especially experiencing this now by being at home and trying to focus/finish my studies. I never realize how many things need my attention at the same time while I am doing my work. For example, I needed to take an exam or quiz all while taking care of a family member and this causes my attention to be on two different things. While they are on the different tasks- one task always gives and becomes secondary.

  4. magalyy

    Many of us at one have either said or thought “I’m good at multitasking” or “I cannot multitask”. I would fit into the first category. Before this class and actually knowing what multitasking meant I thought it was a great, positive thing. I used to be like “heck yea, I can do two things at once, I can multitask”. Then you realize how much of a negative effect multitask can have on the tasks you are doing and your mentality. Multitasking causes us to divide out attention and it imposes the true question of can we really do two things at once. We are putting too much of a strain on our brains. It is like trying to have a machine do jobs at once. I know a lot of us tend to try to multitask with school work. We also tend to think we can multitask with one of the most dangerous activities, driving; putting on makeup, eating, and texting. I know I still sometimes try to multitask and to avoid it, maybe managing my time better to try and have a separate time to complete each task would help.

  5. cwehner

    Wow, this is a really fascinating take on multitasking! Although I’ve never tried to multitask much on purpose, I definitely found what you’re talking about to be true when I’m doing homework with friends. Although it seems like no big deal when we talk every so often, or when I’m half doing homework, half listening to a conversation, I found that my productivity decreased drastically the more I did homework with friends — far less productive than I would have been otherwise (if I had just done homework then hung out with friends). This is super interesting!

  6. julianv

    I’d heard about this before, but I hadn’t yet seen an article or anything of the sort that supported that multitasking was inefficient – not that I went out of my way to look for it – so it’s interesting to see what, exactly, are the impairments caused by multitasking. I know for sure that sometimes, when I try to multitask, I find myself entirely too distracted by my phone or other distractor and my performance deteriorates. I was always of the mind that multitasking was good (though that’s waned in recent years) and this is kind the straw that broke the camel’s back. Thank you for sharing!

  7. jwhearty

    I’ve always struggled to multitask and in the world, we live in felt that it was a skill I also needed to work on. It’s cool to see science claiming that the opposite is true that multitasking isn’t the best thing to do. I definitely do better on my homework when I set specific times to get work for each class done. I wonder what the worst tasks are to try and do at the same time or switch back and forth from doing.

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