So You Think You Can Multitask

Think again.

For years now, “multitasking” has been a buzzword in personal and professional circles. An online search of the term quickly returns tens of millions of hits, and most of the recent results have titles that question whether anyone can really multitask at all. This brief post shares some big ideas and links to where you can start learning more.

Do you or don’t you?

Study after study from researchers around the globe indicates that the human brain is wired to focus on one thing – and only one thing – at a time. When people think they are multitasking, they are actually doing one of two things:

  • Background tasking, where one task is the focus and other tasks are performed automatically (like walking while talking) or passively (like listening to music while typing), or
  • Switchtasking, where attention switches back and forth, sometimes rapidly, between multiple things

But surprise! It turns out that 2 percent of us actually can multitask! These people are called “supertaskers,” and a free online test will let you know if you are part of the 2 percent. (No, I’m not – just reading the description of the test was enough for me!)

Can multitasking be learned?

While supertasking appears to be an inborn ability, some studies propose that anyone can “learn” to do more than one thing at once.

However, what those studies actually show is that a person can learn a task thoroughly enough that it becomes a background task for them, at which point it’s not multitasking any more. And “consuming multiple streams of information at the same time” is also not multitasking: it’s just passive background tasking.

So the current answer to this question is “No, multitasking can’t be learned.”

What’s wrong with switchtasking then?

Most of us switchtask all the time – we have to, in order to live our lives.

But after a certain point, switchtasking begins to take a toll on our productivity, on the quality of our work, and on our stress levels. Don’t believe it? Take this classic test to prove it to yourself; it’ll be 5 minutes well spent.

Recently, neuroscientists using functional MRI (fMRI) scans of the brain have found that habitual switchtasking over a period of several years can result in an “addiction to distraction” and cause certain parts of the brain to atrophy. This alarming news is offset, though, by proof that “neuroplasticity” (the brain’s ability to heal itself and grow new connections) keeps going as long as we live. The idea that our brains die off as we age is just a fable (hooray!).

Who’s better at switching: young or old?

Our brains might not die off, but it’s common knowledge that they do slow down. In fact, maximum brain speed is attained around the age of 25, and after that the slow-down begins.

So, as you’d expect, younger people are typically better at switchtasking since they can turn their attention more quickly.

But it turns out that older people bring something else to the table. fMRI scans of older brains show activity in a greater number of areas when performing the same task – indeed, activity sometimes even crosses between the two sides of the mature brain in ways not seen in the young, indicating an increase in lateral, creative thinking. When I compare my problem-solving process now with how I approached things years ago, it seems to match these findings: my experience adds an intuitive dimension I never had before.

What I conclude from this information is that an ideal project team will include both younger and older members: speedy minds that can accomplish tasks quickly and experienced minds that can leverage subtle insights. Inter-generational collaboration for the win!

Tip of the proverbial iceberg

One of the most difficult parts of writing this post was cutting off my research. There are vast quantities of data out there, and more every day. The links below will take you to solid information that’s written in layman’s terms, not science jargon. I encourage you to begin your own exploration!

Links on Multitasking

By Kim Lindsey

Kim originally authored this post for Cinécraft Productions Inc.