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Father multitasking with young child

Multitasking in a wired world

It’s no secret that when trying to focus on more than one tricky task at a time, performance tends to suffer. The most skilled of chefs will find it harder to avoid spills and burns if they’re talking on the phone to a debt collector at the same time. The most astute of managers might struggle to chair a meeting if they’re also scanning their device for news on an ill relative. 

And yet, in recent decades, thanks in part to the emergence of digital technologies, the pressure to ‘walk, talk and chew gum at the same time’ has intensified. In some quarters, multitasking – performing two or more tasks simultaneously – is seen as essential for modern-day living.    

“People of my generation didn’t have smartphones or social media when young, so we didn’t have that sense of constant connectivity and information bombarding us,” says Professor Peter Wilson, a development psychologist and Deputy Director of ACU’s Healthy Brain and Mind Research Centre

“Nowadays, with so many competing demands, information channels, and a large volume of work to get through, we find ourselves time-pressured and time-poor, and there’s this widespread acceptance that we need to multitask just to keep up. It’s a fact of life that we’re often using our devices while doing another task – and in many cases, we don’t even realise we’re doing it.” 

A long history 

That’s not to say that multitasking is a new thing. 

In a book that explores the long history of multitasking, anthropologist Monica Smith argues that our hunter-gatherer ancestors might have engaged in this practice on a daily basis. 

Sure, they weren’t responding to emails while eating lunch at their desk, but they may have hunted game, foraged for food, and searched for materials while also keeping an eye out for predators.  

“I don’t think it’s worth saying multitasking is bad,” Professor Smith told in 2010. “We can do it, and that is astonishing. Once humans started walking on two feet, their hands were free to pick up tools, fibres, fruits or kids, and their eyes could look around for opportunities and dangers. That’s the beginning of multitasking right there.”

Others have held a less positive view of multitasking. Way back in 1747, in a letter to his son on, ‘The Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman’, the British diplomat Lord Chesterfield labelled it a symptom of “a weak and frivolous mind”.

“There is time enough for everything, in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once,” he wrote. “But there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time.”

The term “multitasking” didn’t emerge until two centuries later, in 1965 – and not in relation to humans. Rather, it described a computer operating system that was unique in its ability to run a wide array of applications at the same time. 

Before long, the word was applied to people and heralded as a potential boon to productivity. 

“Who can remember life before multitasking?” wrote The New York Times Magazine in 2001, in an article titled, ‘How to multitask’. “These days we all do it: mothers, air-traffic controllers, ambidextrous athletes, high-flying executives who manage to eat, take conference calls, write e-mail and conduct board meetings all at the same time.” 

Digital technologies – and particularly smartphones and tablets – have helped to sustain the trend. In a 2014 study exploring the impact of new technologies on the practice, researchers noted that digital devices have “increased the ease of multitasking”.  

“On a single device, one can simultaneously examine multiple web browser windows, monitor the current weather and news, have a text conversation, and listen to music,” the authors say, pointing out that multitasking “has not only become ubiquitous among adults, but is also increasingly invading the lives of young children”.   

More recently, however, much of the discussion around multitasking – among both experts and media pundits – has cast a shadow over the notion that it boosts performance and productivity. Multitasking has been labelled as a “fallacy” and a “myth”, as commentators plead with people to “stop multitasking … no, really – just stop it”.

“There are definitely some downsides,” says Professor Wilson, who recently wrote a mini-essay on multitasking for The Conversation. “What the evidence shows is that certain tasks are better performed when your attention is focused entirely on the one thing, rather than juggling two tasks at the same time or switching back and forth between them.” 

This is certainly the case with tasks that require greater levels of concentration or mental effort. For example, even very experienced drivers will see a cost performance on one or both tasks if they’re trying to change lanes on a highway while talking on a hands-free phone. 

“When adding a secondary task to complex or energy-demanding activities, you’re often not doing either task in the best manner possible,” Professor Wilson adds. “It’s usually more effective to stick to the one task over a sustained period until it’s completed, before moving on to the next.” 

A time and a place 

Does this suggest that some activities might be more easily combined than others? 

What about listening to a podcast while doing the dishes? Or responding to a friend’s text while watching television? Sure, you might miss a funny Ted Lasso quote, but it’s not the end of the world. Does multitasking have a time and a place?

“The examples you’ve given are quite benign, and the fact is that when we’re engaged in such activities, we’re multitasking in varying degrees,” Professor Wilson says, while adding that there’s a caveat. “Of course, dual-tasking becomes risky when you’re engaged in a task that itself has some safety implications.” 

If you’re busy cutting vegetables with a razor-sharp knife, it’s probably not the best time to start a quick videoconference with a colleague.    

“Or while climbing up a ladder might not be the ideal time to have a conversation with a friend about something deep and meaningful.”

This is because deep thinking is itself an energy-demanding activity, engaging the prefrontal cortex and its network connections, involved in both cognition and motor function.  Further still, when two tasks compete for common neural networks (like those contributing to vision), things can very quickly become problematic.    

Professor Wilson likens this to two intersecting streams of traffic on a busy road. “There’s only so much sharing that can occur without there being interference, because the two tasks are competing for space on that same neural pathway,” he says.  

For this reason, multitasking while driving – say, tuning your radio, talking on your phone, or the extreme example of driving while texting – can be incredibly risky, dramatically reducing the ability to react to critical signals and events. 

And while it’s generally not physically dangerous, multitasking in a classroom learning environment can be similarly challenging. If you’re browsing Tik-Tok during a philosophy lecture, for instance, chances are that the information won’t be sinking in. 
“The more we are dual-tasking under those circumstances, the less able we are to process the information and remember the content of the lecture, the podcast, or whatever it is we’re trying to learn, particularly when the second task uses the same sensory systems,” says Professor Wilson, whose neuroscientific research has focused on cognition and motor development. 

“There’s certainly a time for focusing on one thing and devoting all of our energy to it, and in the case of a lecture or any form of learning or study that requires attention, there is a definite advantage.” 

Exceptions to the rule

So, is there ever a time we can split our attention between two tasks and expect a positive result? 

Well, if you’ve ever felt completely stuck on a difficult task, there’s evidence that taking a walk might give you the creative spark you need.  

“When you’re trying to get a handle on a problem that’s a bit intractable, the simple act of going for a walk can help free up your thinking,” says Professor Wilson, pointing out that activities like walking and running are highly automated motor skills, promoting greater flexibility while multitasking. 

“The beauty of walking on an open path is that you don’t have to think too much to do it, and it has a predictable rhythm that can help ‘relax and free the mind’. This might seem paradoxical because walking and thinking is just another form of multitasking – and yet, it can be really beneficial for creativity and problem-solving.” 

For some people, listening to background music can prompt a similar result. Research has found it can have a positive effect on concentration and working memory, helping to screen out distractions and relax the mind. 

So, while it might be tempting to view multitasking as a modern-day evil that is always bad for our brains, the fact is that – on occasion – we’re all required to do two or more things at once.

“There are times where we simply have to juggle multiple tasks at the same time,” Professor Wilson says. “By the same token, we should always be mindful that multitasking won’t always save us time and energy, and we’d probably get some performance and learning benefits from doing one thing at a time – focusing on the task, ticking it off, and moving on.” 

Perhaps, in the near future, technology will provide more of us with the perfect time and place for multitasking, as automated vehicles make it safe to do a range of things while commuting to school or work: catch up on email, do a meditation, read a book. The choice will be all yours.

Professor Peter Wilson is Deputy Director of the Healthy Brain and Mind Research Centre and Professor of Developmental Psychology at ACU. He leads international research exploring mechanisms of motor skill development and cognition across the lifespan, and innovations in neurorehabilitation using virtual reality. 

Professor Peter Wilson

Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2024 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS registered provider: 00004G | PRV12008