The biggest problem with real science lies in the fact that it is usually very complicated. It’s a natural human tendency to look for simple answers, whereas the reality is often rather complex.
Mind you, there are some simple answers – according to our current knowledge, exposing yourself to the HIV virus is harmful. Full stop, that’s just how it is. However, there are also many dose-dependant things. In some amounts, they are indispensable, in others they are good, and in others they are simply deadly. Water is a very good example here – you need it to survive. Many people could benefit from greater hydration, but if you drink too much of it, you might even die due to electrolyte imbalance in your body. Finally, there are things that can be good or bad, depending on the context. For instance, being overweight or obese. These increase the risk factor of some diseases, but in case of other disorders, they decrease the risk and mortality.
This logical, nuanced way of thinking does not always appeal to people. They look for something simple and easy. This is why we tend to worship something first, and then demonise it. We prefer to perceive it in black or white, rather than in its full complexity.
That is often the case when it comes to multitasking, which means doing several things at the same time.
For tens of years, the legend of multitasking kept on growing. If you do several things at the same time, it means you’re good and efficient. You don’t waste time. Quite the contrary – you squeeze every second out of life! This obviously means that you will be successful!
And then, just like a house of cards collapsing, multitasking turned out to be EVIL. Some time at the end of the previous decade, criticism of multitasking became very popular, and today you can easily find tons of articles that “debunk the myth of multitasking”.
What happened? Have they discovered some new, incredible facts, which drastically changed the picture?
Well… no. It is quite simple, really. The media needed some new, engaging information that they could process and feed us. And just then, several known authors started criticising multitasking. The new message goes: multitasking is evil and inefficient. Do one thing at a time. The reality, however, as it usually is, turns out to be more complex.
Can multitasking be harmful?
Doubts concerning the human ability to manage many things at the same time have appeared in the scientific literature since the 1960s. Researchers pointed at potential “cognitive bottlenecks” that limit our processing capacity. Later research also reports so-called “switching costs”, a short period of reduced efficiency, which is required by the brain to switch between tasks.
At first glance, multitasking does seem to have mainly disadvantages, but there is more to it than that.
Multitasking and layered tasks
The key issue in the discussion about multitasking is the type of tasks we want to combine. Negative effects of multitasking occur mainly in the case of tasks that involve similar cognitive processes, especially attention. In other words, it is not very likely that you can concentrate on a phone conversation and safe car driving simultaneously. And don’t count on simultaneously reading a book and working out new business strategies either.
However, there is no reason you should not be able to read a book while you work out on a cross-trainer or a stationary bicycle; nor should you have problems watching TV while you iron. Those tasks involve different brain areas, so there is no conflict there.
To differentiate this strategy from multitasking, such technique is often called “layering”, which means combining activities that do not disturb one another. There is no reason to consider this form of multitasking harmful.
Multitasking and predictability
Modern research also points to another form of layering tasks, based on the specific traits of working memory. That kind of memory is used in everyday functioning. Research shows that it operates on three levels.
- The main area, storing one key element that we are focusing on.
- The supporting area, storing at least three further elements.
- The passive area, storing a bigger amount of elements of secondary importance.
Interestingly, with proper training and using repeated patterns, the main area can increase its processing capacity and store even four different elements at the same time. That creates a possibility of switching between those elements, without any switching costs. This is only possible if the tasks are predictable and follow a pre-determined pattern, which makes it possible to automatize them.
Multitasking and beneficial distraction
Although multitasking is usually criticised as a method leading to attention loss, in case of creative behaviours or solving problems, such “loss” can actually be a gain. Fixation on one problem might make one overlook potential alternative solutions. Creativity requires a so-called incubation period, and multitasking can provide such a space.
Obviously, in case of tasks that do not involve such creativity, multitasking will not provide those benefits.
Multitasking and the task type
Some research suggests that negative effects of multitasking are not as straightforward as one might think. Students with a multitasking approach experienced worse results when they combined studying with Facebook browsing, but not when they took breaks from studying in order to write an e-mail. This may mean that the problem is more complex than it seems, and further research is needed into the kind of tasks that can be mixed without harm.
Multitasking and emotions
It is also crucial to point out that the loss of efficiency caused by multitasking is not that significant, and the technique has a positive effect on people’s mood. It gives an illusion of higher efficiency, and that brings more satisfaction. In case of tasks we do not like to perform, one should not ignore the emotional benefits of multitasking. It is better for people to perform those tasks less efficiently than to try to be more efficient and perform the tasks with such revulsion that in the future they will avoid them altogether.
Multitasking is wasteful, apart from those situations when it isn’t 🙂
Seriously, the subject has not been exhausted yet. It may turn out that there are more acceptable forms of multitasking. Until then, it is a good idea to remember the following guidelines:
- When it comes to everyday activities, multitasking will limit your efficiency.
- Unless they are routinized, predictable behaviours, in which case you can still be equally efficient with multi- and singletasking.
- If you want to combine tasks, it is better to do it in a complementary way, and to layer them so that they involve different areas of your brain, instead of competing for attention of one process.
- In case of creative tasks, multitasking can be beneficial, providing more variety and “pulling you out of mental foxholes, in which one might get lost.
- If you particularly detest a task, combining it with another task might actually help you to make it bearable.
 Jackson, T., Dawson, R. and Wilson, D., 2003. Reducing the effect of email interuption on employees. International Journal of information Management, 23(1), pp.55-65; http://jamesclear.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/email-multitasking-study.pdf
 Gladstones, W., Regan, M., & Lee, R. (1989). Division of attention: The single-channel hypothesis revisited. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology Section A, 1-17.; http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/14640748908402350#.Vdc-MfntlGa
 Ritter, S. M., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2014). Creativity—the unconscious foundations of the incubation period. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 215. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2014.00215 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3990058/
 Juncoa, Reynol; Cotten, Shelia R. “No A 4 U: The Relationship between Multitasking and Academic Performance,” Computers & Education, 2012, Volume 59, Issue 2, September 2012, 505–514. http://blog.reyjunco.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/JuncoCottenMultitaskingFBTextCAE2012.pdf