What is multitasking anyway? Is multitasking good or bad for us? Multitasking is one of those subjects that the experts never seem to be able to agree on. Is it a positive attribute to boast about on resumes, or is it a risky habit that is harmful to those with attention issues? Is there areas in life—at home, in the office, in the classroom—where multitasking is OK, and others areas where it is not? Multitasking is all around us: the office worker interrupted by a phone call, the teenager texting while driving, the salesperson chatting while entering an order. When multitasking, the mind juggles all the many tasks we're doing this second, this hour, this week, and tries to perform them together, sometimes with great ease, sometimes with great difficulty. Sure, multitasking can help us accomplish multiple items on a to-do list, but does doing multiple things at the same time affect our ability to do those tasks well? We don't often stop to think about how exactly we accomplish these feats of multitasking great and small. How do we switch from one task to another? What types of multitasking are disruptive, and when are they most disruptive? And ultimately, how can we take advantage of the benefits of multitasking while alleviating its negative effects in our daily lives?
Let us start with defining multitasking and where the word originated. According to Dictionary.com the definition is as follows;
"mul-ti-task [muhl-tee-task] verb (used without object)
1. Computers. (of a single CPU) to execute two or more jobs concurrently
2. (of one person) to perform two or more tasks simultaneously." The word itself originated sometime in the early 1960's when computers were beginning to evolve into the modern, super-fast, data crunching, processing micro devices we know today. Back in the early days, computers had to batch jobs, meaning they stacked them in a waiting order, and did one at a time. As they evolved, they developed the ability to do more than one job at a time, or to "multitask".
So how does this ability of computers cross over to what we as humans call "multitasking". For starters the reality is that as humans, we don't actually multitask most of the time. What we do is task switch, quickly going from one task to the other, rather than actually doing two things simultaneously, like walking and chewing gum. Many of us think that we are multitasking ninjas, but research shows that it is usually quite the opposite. "People don't multitask because they're good at it," says David Sanbonmatsu, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah and lead author of the study, which was published online in the journal PLOS One. "They do it because they are more distracted. They have trouble inhibiting the impulse to do another activity." (qtd. in Shute). Numerous studies have also show that multitasking behavior such as texting or talking on your cell phone while driving is equivalent to driving drunk. "Multitasking is going to increase before it wanes. About 35 percent of Gen-Y-ers say they always multitask, compared with 30 percent of Gen X-ers and just 21 percent of baby boomers. Those differences are amplified in important behaviors such as fiddling with a cell phone while driving: 37 percent of Gen Y-ers admit doing it versus just 17
percent of Gen X-ers and only 2 percent of boomers. About 89 percent of teenagers reported seeing other teens on their cell phones at least sometimes."(Multitasking)
This is probably the reason why so many states now have adopted legislation making such activities illegal. Yet people persist in thinking they are the ones who the statistics don't apply to, that they can do it and do it well. In my quest to discover why, I looked up the study published in the journal PLOS One. This study was conducted in Utah with researchers (Sanbonmatsu et al.) in 2012 and used four distinct tests to determine not only a person's ability to...