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:
- Performing two or more tasks simultaneously
- Switching back and forth from one thing to another
- 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:
- Goal shifting, in which we pick which task we want to accomplish, and
- 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.