Is Multitasking Dead or Alive?

Multitasking was once a characteristic touted by savvy workers who claimed to be highly efficient and productive. Women are particularly adept at this skill that requires bouncing from one task to another quickly. An onslaught of articles a few years ago told readers that multitasking effectively was a myth. Top business magazines like Harvard Business Review and the New York Times listed the many reasons multitasking overtaxed the brain and decreased cognitive functioning. However, a closer look shows the research is not black and white. Multitasking is mentally taxing when working on two novel tasks that require use of our short-term memory; alternatively, multitasking can be effective when completing routine activities.

Studies that looked at the efficacy of multitasking often evaluated the effects of completing two tasks that require input from what is called our “working memory,” otherwise known as short-term memory. In this scenario, the two activities are in a duel, competing for short-term memory space. Both activities require us to draw new information like visual cues and process from our short-term working memory leading to cognitive decline. The amount of time needed to finish a task increases due to “attention residue.” Have you ever read a book chapter only to discover that you don’t recall what you read because you were thinking about the grocery list you put together? Attention residue is the act of reflecting on a prior task when we moved on to a new one. As you can imagine, we are less effective when our minds are pulled elsewhere.

Georgetown Professor Cal Newport recommends we counteract the damage of multitasking by setting aside time for “deep work.” Deep work is focusing on one task, also called monotasking, for uninterrupted periods of time. This “deep work” requires concentration and is a good brain exercise to help train our minds to refrain from multitasking – a practice that many have grown accustomed to with cell phones and laptops pinging with reminders.

This doesn’t mean that multi-tasking is always a bad idea! There are certain situations where juggling two actions at the same time is just fine. Humans are creatures of habit and we effectively multitask when pulling information from our memory. In order for this type of multitasking to take place, we need to use less of our working memory and more of our long-term memory files. This is where building routines or habits come into play. Habits decrease your reliance on working memory, and, as a result, enables us to multitask with ease. For example, we may listen to an audio book while driving or tune into a podcast as we chop vegetables for dinner without affecting either activity negatively. While some say multitasking is a trend of the past, it is a technique we all use in our daily lives.

Originally featured in UBA’s April 2021 HR Elements Newsletter.