Can multitasking work?

I don’t understand all the enthusiasm over multitasking. I know it’s supposed to be a good thing. Housewives and business people brag, ‘Look at me. I’m multitasking,’ implying, I guess, that that they’re accomplishing more than they could if they only did one thing at a time. One popular example is the person who attempts to eat, talk on the phone, text, email, apply makeup and/or shave—and drive—all at the same time. Dangerous, to be sure, but even if it wasn’t, how in the world can it ever be effective? Let’s take a look at some research on the subject.

The New York Times recently reported on studies conducted by neuroscientists, psychologists and management professors. Their findings suggested that people should limit their multitasking when working in an office, studying or driving a car. They concluded that driving is the most dangerous time to multitask, as even a one-second delay could be fatal. You don’t say!

Even in situations where you aren’t a hazard to everyone and everything around you, how efficient can multitasking be? There’s more research: A Journal of Experimental Psychology study from a few years ago revealed that people actually wasted time when they had to switch from one task to another. These ‘time costs’ increased with the complexity of the tasks and when people switched to tasks that were relatively unfamiliar.

The research seems to prove what I suspected all along: That you can’t literally do two, three or four things at the same time—and hope to do them well. You might think you are successfully multitasking, but merely attempting to do so doesn’t mean you’re being productive. The time cost of switching from one task to another probably cancels out any time you think you might have saved otherwise.

The old expression, ‘If you’re going to do something, do it well’ probably seems passin an age of trying to do ten things at once and calling it efficient. Yet maybe it’s all an illusion. If you’re just ‘going through the motions,’ then you’re not really doing anything at all.

In an age that venerates multitasking, it’s interesting that there are also unprecedented instances of ‘attention deficit disorder.’ In plain English, ADD refers to a lack of focus and attention. But could there be something cultural and behavioral going on as well? Fifteen years ago I began to question the popular notion that ADD was supposedly only about the brain—perhaps even a terrifying disease. Now the mainstream scientists are suggesting, for at least some of the huge numbers of people arbitrarily labeled with ADD, that something might be flawed in that approach. Maybe we’re just dividing our attention among too many things. Goodness knows there are enough things out there to grab your attention! But the fact remains that most people don’t concentrate nearly as well when they attempt multiple tasks at the same time. Could some of the ‘knee-jerk’ ADD diagnoses be nothing more than a convenient excuse for distractions and mistakes?

The Journal of Experimental Psychology talks about another consequence of multitasking called ‘switch cost.’ ‘We found that ‘switch cost,” according to one of the study’s authors, ‘increases with the complexity of the tasks. That suggests that a very simple conversation on the phone while driving a car—maybe ‘Honey, please pick up some bread on the way home’—might not draw too much concentration. But if the conversation becomes difficult or emotionally charged or mentally taxing—like ‘Honey, the house is burning down, what should I do?’—it draws more attention and more mental resources away from your primary task, which is driving the car: You’re more likely to have an accident.’

I guess what really aggravates me most about the concept of multitasking is that it sounds like nothing more than a rationalization for a bad habit. In 1999, according to Kaiser Family Foundation research, 16 percent of teenagers claimed they were “media multitaskers:” using several types of media, such as television, radio or computers, at once. By 2005, that percentage had increased to 26 percent. So, instead of telling teenagers, ‘Trying to study while you’re constantly interrupted makes no sense. Do one thing or the other,’ we’re telling them, ‘Oh, how nice. You’re multitasking. Look how clever you are.’ Then, when their strategy fails, we find some trendy label to attach to it, pretend that it’s medical and fill ’em up with pills when, quite possibly, it’s nothing more than bad habits.

Sometimes we have no choice but to do several things at once, and there have to be rational distinctions, such as the difference between a lengthy conversation and a brief message while driving. But it seems that my concerns about the dubious benefits of ‘multitasking’ are, indeed, supported by research. Because of the way our brains work, multitasking might be more than just a bad idea. It might even be a myth—and, if behind the wheel, a dangerous one as well.