Us millennials are known to be the multitasking generation. It is a skill that is valued by employers and one that everyone is very quick to put on their resume. We try to juggle multiple things at once, claiming that it makes us more productive and helps us make better use of our time and energy, but does multitasking really work? This is a question that has always interested me because personally, I don’t know how to multitask. If I am texting someone and a person tries to have a conversation with me at the same time, I can only focus on one or the other. Trying to do both, I would end up extremely frustrated and wouldn’t (or couldn’t) have my full attention on either. I wanted to do some research and find out if people can actually multitask and I’m just not good at it, or if it’s genuinely impossible and it’s actually hurting us and slowing down our progress in the tasks that we are attempting to perform simultaneously. The null hypothesis would be that we are unable to multitask and it’s slowing down our progress, while the alternative is that multitasking really works!
A study on this topic was conducted by Wilfred W.F. Lau and published in Computers in Human Behavior. The overall conclusion was that the longer the student spent multitasking on multimedia and social media, the lower they performed on the tests in the study. This is believed to be because our brain toggles between multiple tasks and actually tires itself out in the process. Each “toggle” depletes energy, actually leading to less accomplished due to the absence of the energy that you’d need to perform a task. Another reason we find it hard to focus on two or more things at once is because the right and left sides of the prefrontal cortex work together when focused on one task, but split up when forced to do two. When faced with three or more tasks, people in the study consistently forgot to complete one of the tasks, showing us that multitasking is in fact counterproductive.
Another study done by Edward Downs, published in Computers & Education, showed the same trend. Two groups of students were given a documentary to watch, one group allowed to have some form of social media or computer with them while the other group was not. The group that multitasked made many more mistakes than the group that did not multitask and was just focused on the documentary. Some flaws in this study, though, were that most of the students in this study were freshmen. This could have been a flaw because freshmen could have different study/listening habits than juniors or seniors, simply because it’s their first year away from home, living and learning by themselves. Another flaw was that one fifth of the students in the experiment reported previously using their laptops in class to take notes. This is not ideal because they could have better trained themselves to be engaged in two types of medias, possibly skewing the results.
Other possible confounding variables to both studies? Our attitude towards how well we believe we could multitask. According to the National Academies Press, self confidence is one of the most influential motivators of behavior in our everyday lives. If we believe that we can do something, we have a better chance of actually accomplishing it. Another confounding variable is how long we’ve been attempting to multitask. Someone who has been actively on their phone while attempting to pay attention in class during their entire academic career has better conditioned themselves than someone who has only recently began to attempt multitasking.
Although multitasking seems like a great idea, the two studies that I have analyzed have showed that we must reject the alternative hypothesis. It seems like a great idea to do multiple things at the same time, but if it’s actually making us counterproductive, I’d rather focus on one thing at a time.