From school to the workplace and especially at home, multitasking is nearly ubiquitous in today's fast-paced society. While we have long attempted to cram far more into one day than is realistic, this tendency is now accelerated by the always-on nature of the digital world, in which we're expected to respond to emails, text messages, and social media shoutouts in a matter of minutes.
Many self-described multitaskers view their purported ability to juggle several activities with pride. They believe that, by simultaneously handling a variety of tasks, they can get more done in less time. The reality, however, is less straightforward. While certain types of multitasking are all but unavoidable, the practice may actually make us less productive in the long run.
It may never be possible to completely escape the urge to multitask, but that doesn't mean that we're doomed to poor productivity or constant distraction. Rather, it's important to acknowledge the role multitasking plays in society and how the practice can be adapted to ensure the best results. This means knowing when multitasking can be used effectively and when it's best avoided. We detail both scenarios below, as well as offer much-needed clarity on what multitasking really means and whether it actually exists.
What Is Multitasking?
When you picture an adept multitasker, you probably think of somebody handling several different tasks at once. For example, a purported multitasker might answer emails while completing schoolwork while also watching a TV show. In reality, however, multitasking is a lot more complicated than it seems—and according to experts, it's not actually possible for humans to complete two thought-intensive activities at once.
Is Multitasking a Myth?
What the average person thinks of as multitasking can be better defined as rapid task-switching. The human brain is simply incapable of actively focusing on multiple concerns simultaneously. When we feel that we are completing several tasks at the same time, we are, in fact, switching very quickly from one activity to the next. This shift may feel imperceptible, but it occurs all the same.
Using the above example of simultaneous email, schoolwork, and TV, our attention shifts from our inbox to our textbook and then our favorite show in a matter of seconds—but we aren't actively focused on all three at once.
Perhaps the greatest myth of multitasking is that it helps us save time. This can be occasionally true for activities that don't require our undivided attention, but more often than not, multitasking proves ineffective.
This unfortunate reality is evidenced by a growing body of research. In a study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior, college students who regularly multitasked while completing homework actually spent more time studying than their focused counterparts. What's more, multitasking students from this study tended to suffer lower GPAs.
How to Successfully and Unsuccessfully Multitask
The reality of modern life is such that, at times, we may need to carry out several activities at once. While it's often necessary to focus exclusively on a single task, distractions are occasionally going to get in the way. This is especially true for anyone who lives, works, or studies with other people nearby. Parents, for example, may be forced to watch young children while getting ready for the day or even carrying out quick tasks for work or school.
It's not necessary to eschew the idea of multitasking or rapid task-switching altogether. Rather, we need to understand what, exactly, constitutes effective multitasking and which harmful practices prevent us from reaching our full potential.
Some people have actually managed to master the art of multitasking. Known as "supertaskers," these individuals see improved performance as they take on additional pursuits. While this level of multitasking achievement may be out of reach for most people, we can all stand to improve. To achieve this lofty goal, avoid the following:
- Unnecessary, preventable distractions
- For example, there's no real need to have the TV on in the background while studying. Similarly, notifications from social media are not particularly urgent, so it's best to keep your phone on silent when you need to focus.
- Multitasking during lectures or class discussions
- No matter how adept you believe yourself to be at task-switching, it should never be pursued when you're physically present at class or logged in for an online course. It may be tempting to scroll through Instagram or cram for another class, but this is both unproductive and downright rude.
- Activities that could be dangerous if not given your full attention
- Texting while driving is particularly dangerous, but it's just one of several pursuits that could prove deadly. If you suspect that a specific form of multitasking could place the safety of you or loved ones in question, avoid it.
In addition to steering clear of the habits outlined above, these practices may help you multitask more effectively:
- Pair mindless tasks that don't require a lot of concentration
- Instead of attempting to handle two mentally intense activities at once, opt for repetitive activities that you can complete without actively thinking. For example, many people wash dishes or fold clothes while listening to audiobooks.
- Develop as distraction-free an environment as possible
- To make multitasking a bit easier, clean up clutter and turn off digital devices. If possible, ask other household members to avoid interacting with you for a specific period of time. The fewer distractions present, the easier you'll find it to switch between designated tasks.
- Double-check any written work composed while multitasking
- If your attention isn't fully devoted to writing, you could be prone to typos. Edit and proofread thoroughly to ensure that every email, work report, or term paper is grammatically correct.
6 Pros and Cons of Multitasking
Depending on the situation, multitasking can either be advantageous or detrimental. It's up to you to determine when it's helpful and when it will get in the way. Potential benefits of multitasking as a student include:
- Motivational: At times, multitasking can keep you motivated—especially if you dread a particular pursuit. For example, if you hate working out, you may find it easier to exercise when you actively plan to watch a favorite TV show while on the treadmill. By checking off multiple items on your to-do list, you may feel more motivated to continue making progress, even if it's technically slower than what you'd achieve if you stuck with one task at a time.
- Practicing for a multitasking world: Like it or not, rapid-task switching is essential in many industries. If you ignore this reality and never practice juggling multiple pursuits, you could struggle when you eventually enter a fast-paced profession that requires you to jump from one task to the next in quick succession. As a college student, you'll enjoy multiple opportunities for developing this critical skill.
- Potential for greater creativity: Preliminary research suggests that our most creative moments may actually arrive when our focus is directed elsewhere. Experts believe that multitasking boosts cognitive flexibility, which, in turn, allows for impressive insights that might not be possible in a focused environment.
Unfortunately, multitasking can hold these noteworthy drawbacks:
- Poor performance: When handling two mentally difficult activities at once, both may be completed more slowly and less accurately than when each task is completed alone. As mentioned previously, it is well-documented that students who attempt to complete homework while taking on other activities suffer lower grades than those who opt for a more focused approach.
- Increased anxiety: Research indicates that people who consistently divide their attention between several tasks feel more anxious than those who focus on one thing at a time. By slowing down and purposefully sticking with a single pursuit, we can limit stress.
- Failure to live in the moment: How often do you make a point of being fully present? If you're in the habit of multitasking, you may naturally gravitate towards doing or thinking about several things at once. This could make it impossible to live in the moment. You might miss out on special occasions because you're consistently preoccupied.
3 Ways Students Can Improve Their Multitasking Skills
While multitasking as we know it technically doesn't exist, it's possible for some people to become effective task-switchers. This, like any skill, takes practice. Top suggestions for improving your multitasking abilities include:
- Choose the right times to multitask: To begin, start small with activities that lack urgency. Over time, you may realize that you are better capable of juggling several matters at once.
- Set goals for your multitasking session: This will help you become more aware of your objectives so that you're as purposeful as possible when shifting from one activity to the next. Take notes to determine your progress, paying close attention to what worked and what didn't during a particular period of multitasking.
- Be ready to give up multitasking when it's not working: As you assess your task-switching efficacy, remember that you can always return to pursuing one thing at a time.
Multitasking doesn't need to be a dirty word, but it's also not a cure-all for your busy college schedule. A little practice can go a long way so you can find a task-switching solution that works for you.