[Notice -- this was originally published two weeks ago, but it somehow got deleted in the move to this URL. I'm reposting it now for those of you who missed it.]
Most people I know–with one or two exceptions–think that multitasking does work for them. In fact, a friend of mine once proudly declared that she was excellent at it, having changed a diaper, baked a cake, and handled a business crisis over the phone, all within the same hour.
What the research says
Now there’s research to say that we are fooling ourselves.
Switching between familiar tasks may work out okay. Problems set in when we try to switch among more complex tasks. The problem is that our brain has to handle two discrete things when multitasking:
- goal shifting: “I will now do this and not that”, and
- rule activation: “I will stop using the rules for that and start using the rules for this”
The more complex the task, the more challenging it is to remember where we want to go and what we want to do when we switch. Consequently, we may be more error prone and actually waste time rather than save time.
Interested in a quick online test?
Now this is where it gets fun (for me). There are two online tests–one measures how fast you switch between tests and the other measures your ability to focus on the task at hand. I love taking online tests. If I agree with the results, I have new information. If I disagree, I have a puzzle as to why the test said I am inclined toward one way and I’m thinking another way. Either way, I gain new information. As a collector of information about how human beings work, this is always a win for me.
For a good article on multitasking, click here.
To take the test on how fast you can juggle tasks, click here.
To test how well you focus on a particular task, click here.
As a side note, these tests have been psychometrically validated, meaning that researchers have tested them to make sure they measure what they are supposed to measure. (See reference below.)
What good does it do you to know how well you multitask?
Dealing with workplace dynamics effectively requires knowing our strengths and areas needing support. My friend who baked a cake, changed the diaper, and dealt with the work crisis might have actually done just as well as she thought she did in all three things, but did she? Would I have in her shoes? Did the cake and the diaper distract her from full attention on the work issue? Would she have done a better job if she had at least postponed the cake for an hour? (I wouldn’t recommend postponing a soggy baby.)
So how did I do?
Turns out that I am a very fast switcher. My focus, though, could use slight improvement—but not enough to fret about as I read the test. If I had been in my friend’s shoes, I know that I would be better off taking care of the diaper and then putting full focus on the work problem. The cake would have had to wait.
If you decide to take the online tests, please let me know how they worked for you. And if you like online tests, please let me know as well.
Here is the cite for the original study: Ophira, E., Ness, C., & Wagner, A. D. (2009). Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106(33).
© Jean Kantambu Latting, 2010
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