multitasking: why can't I?
August 20, 2010 3:22 AM   Subscribe

multitasking: am I the only one who can't?

Multitasking: it seems like everyone is doing it nowadays - except me that is.

I've always known I wasn't the greatest multi-tasker ever, but I've got to the point now where I'm pretty sure I don't multi-task at all. Ever. Are there any figures on prevalence of multi-taskers vs. 'mono-taskers' like myself? I feel like I'm the only person I know who's like this, but I know this can't be the case.

I'd love to be able to multi-task like all these other 'normal' people because a lot of boring mundane everyday tasks would be more bearable if I could tackle them simultaneously. But I'm stuck doing them one. at. a. time. like some dinosaur. I'm sure mono-tasking is an asset when doing tasks that require very high levels of attention to detail, but it's hard to feel positive about that when 90%+ of our daily life involves activities that don't require this very high level of attention to detail. I mean, who cares if your shirt isn't ironed perfectly everyday or if the spelling and grammar of your last email wasn't spot on? Not me, and I think not anyone.

I'm pretty sure there is no pill I can take to make me multi-task, neither do I believe any amount of therapy will unlock the multi-tasker within. I think my brain is just wired differently, but is there any scientific evidence to support my supposition? Has anyone ever studied the brains of multi-taskers vs mono-taskers? Are we physiologically different, or is just that I switch between tasks so slowly that it appears as if I can only do one at a time?
posted by davidjohnfox to Science & Nature (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Having listened to a number of podcasts and read a few articles on the topic over the last couple of years, the consensus seems to be that there really isn't such a thing as "multitasking" in the way you're thinking of it. Nobody devotes their attention to multiple tasks at once; they just switch between tasks rapidly. And everything I've read / heard indicates that people who attempt to work this way do lower-quality work and are less efficient.

In other words, ignore the buzzword hype and quit feeling bad about yourself.
posted by jon1270 at 3:40 AM on August 20, 2010 [16 favorites]

Further to jon1270's comments, what I've read is that people who hold the belief they're good at multitasking are actually worse at it in studies than people who don't.

One book I've read which has had discussions of multitasking is

(not necessarily recommending, but the first reference that came to mind)

You can find a fair bit of information both online and in print form if you look around questions like attention, attention span, the effect of the internet on people's lives.

You might also find Buddhism interesting - there's a strong focus on attention to the present moment and what you're doing Right Now, which seems to be the way you already work. This is believed to be a Good Thing.
posted by curious_yellow at 3:54 AM on August 20, 2010

One thing I've not seen science on is that there are strong folk-beliefs about gender differences in multitasking - it's frequently claimed that men can't do it and women can.

I'd be interested to read about any cases where these claims were checked out.
posted by curious_yellow at 3:57 AM on August 20, 2010

Really, it's more of a failure of terminology, but at any rate there's an easy way to find out how good you are at multitasking: do it while you are cooking. Fill a pot with water while sauteeing with your other hand. Scoop flour while beating an egg. Go ahead and use an electric mixer if you want. It won't do any good, and it's not just physiology. Human brains just cannot operate well on multiple tasks without the effectiveness of each dropping to dangerous levels (while near a stove or car). I suck at it, you'll suck at it, everybody sucks at it. "Multitasking" is just 21st century efficiency techniques, the same old stuff updated to incorporate newer technology. Inbox Zero is pretty much the same thing as "touch each piece of paper only once," which has been around at least since like the 50s.
posted by rhizome at 4:00 AM on August 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

Very simply women are better at multitasking than men, or so I have read

My wife can do it, and I can't. She can sit with a book or magazine in front of her while watching a movie on TV and tell me both about the book and the movie.

I have a tough time keeping my attention on only one at a time, especially if something else is going on in the house.
posted by donfactor at 4:00 AM on August 20, 2010


That's what everyone says! But it's always at the level of "ooh, my wife's good at that". I'm interested in proper research.

Of course I've not googled, and for all I know a quick search will turn up 500 studies.
posted by curious_yellow at 4:02 AM on August 20, 2010

Curious_Yellow already brought up The Shallows, which helped solidify for me my anti-multitasking stance. It's a great book, and the author's blog is also interesting. I avoid quoting from it every chance I get, because I'm scared people will think I'm some sort of productivity evangelist.

In my workplace, everyone is stressed out. Phones ringing, IM's going, a constant stream of email, decisions and plans and meetings, and everyone is struggling to stay on top of the endless tasks. Come in at 7, leave around 5 or 6 for dinner, come back and work till midnight in the mad rush to keep up.

Watching this has led me to believe that there is no such thing as multitasking; there's only attention, and interruption. And interruptions cause stress, not just for the one trying to do everything at once, but for everyone they come into contact with. It sucks to be on the phone with someone and hear keys ticking in the background, because you know they're only listening to you with half an ear. People get stupid, the more tasks they try to add at one time, because they're not paying attention to any of it, they're not remembering it, they have no deep understanding of anything. They're really hard to talk to with any idea you've thought about for a while, because you have to try to make it into the shallowest bullet point for them, for that half-second you've got them before the next text comes in.

My boss gave me a thing to do the other day and apologized for adding to my work load. I said, no problem, I have some free time. And the response was amused disbelief. Nobody has free time! But I do. That's the weirdest thing. If you pay attention to that email you're writing, and don't do anything until you've finished it, you get done a little faster. If you're throwing stuff onto a spreadsheet and checking how pretty a chart it makes, if you just let calls go to voicemail, you not only get done a little faster, but you get the sheet out to everyone far more quickly than they thought possible. If you're on the phone, and all you do is listen, you pick up on the nuances of the conversation that make whoever's on the other side happier (or...y'know, less angry, depending on your job).

Look, I don't mean to be on a soapbox here, and I don't want to turn your question into an opportunity to preach. But when you do one thing at a time, you get to do it right, you get to enjoy it, you get to think about it. Maybe for everything in life, that's not a big deal--boiling an egg or something, doesn't require some meditation-level of awareness, and unitasking won't make it boil any faster. Exercise bike? Sure, bring a book. But for things that require communication and production...enjoy your single-mindedness. It's a virtue.
posted by mittens at 4:37 AM on August 20, 2010 [6 favorites]

Funnily enough, the BBC are also running an article which says that those people who claim to multitask actually do it really badly.

I'm a pretty poor multi-tasker. I cannot read emails and watch the TV at the same time because invariably I tend to get sucked into one of them at the expense of the other. I can just about manage ironing and watching the TV at the same time although I tend to put something on that is easy to follow and doesn't need much thinking (Smallville for example, rather than CSI - I'd miss a crucial bit whilst concentrating on a cuff and be lost).

My GF reckons she's a great multi-tasker when, in reality, she's pretty rubbish at it. Try asking her to explain what happened in a TV show after she's finished watching it and piddling around on Facebook and she'll have a hard time.

In short, I really wouldn't worry about it.
posted by mr_silver at 4:49 AM on August 20, 2010

I don't buy the gender disparity argument. I'm a great multitasker and my wife can't do it at all. Anecdotal, I know, but I've never seen real research on the matter.

However, I'm envious of unitaskers (monotaskers?) in the ivory tower. I work with mathematicians who can focus on nothing but a problem for extended periods of time and it serves them really well in their research. I need to ride my bike, get more coffee, talk to strangers about the weather, etc. in order to get my focus back after a short time. It's good to have both kinds of people in the world.
posted by monkeymadness at 4:53 AM on August 20, 2010

Yeah, I'm not really after anecdotal evidence - I'd ask Yahoo! if I wanted that! no, it's scientific studies/academic articles I'm interested in.

@jon1270: I don't feel bad about myself. I appreciate that everyone is different, and like monkeymadness says, there's place for all types of people in the world.

@mr_silver: Thanks for linking to that article. But I think all that it clears up is that multi-tasking isn't a clearly defined phenomenon. And anyway, just because people are doing the multiple tasks badly isn't necessarily a bad thing since a lot of times in life badly is good enough - especially when all that matters is that it's done.

@mittens: I'm tempted to agree with you that it's a virtue. (I'm certainly not going to buy into it being any kind of vice).Maybe it's time more mono-taskers got on their soapboxes and made a fuss about how great it is to do one thing at a time.

Part of me wonders if the high prevalence of multi-taskers working in the media industry (I'm assuming that's the case) has lead to lots of stories about the wonders of multi-tasking which has in turn has caused a belief to form among the wider public (non-multi-taskers now included) that multi-tasking is a virtuous skill crucial for being able to navigate through the modern multimedia world we live in when, in fact, it's merely a personality trait found in concentration among people who work in the media.
posted by davidjohnfox at 5:42 AM on August 20, 2010

I pretty much cannot multitask. I can do very physical chores and something else (watching TV and ironing, sweeping and thinking about a course issue), but I am usually much happier when I concentrate fully on whatever I am doing -- sort of a "when you cut the carrots, cut the carrots; when you stir the soup, stir the soup" sort of thing. Many of my students claim to be good at multitasking, but my experience in evaluating their work is that it is not so. So, no experimental evidence from me, but another bunch of anecdotes. Anyway, I would not sweat it if you feel you can't multitask -- just do each thing on its own, as well as you can.
posted by GenjiandProust at 5:45 AM on August 20, 2010

Just to point out that just because everyone says women can multitask and men cannot does not necessarily mean it's true.

I'm a woman, and I cannot multitask. I am a strong singletasker. When I strive to do something, say go to the grocery store with the intent to buy hamburger buns.. my brain is like: hamburger buns, hamburger buns, hamburger buns.. I pay almost no attention to the fruits and vegetables and sales that I pass by. Sometimes this means revisiting parts of the store I've already been in. (Thankfully this is why I go with a written list that is categorized most of the time).

Boyfriend? He can pay attention to me, watch a movie, and play his video games all at the same time.

When I try to multitask, things tend to go badly. I feel harassed/stressed and all: "AHHHH! I gotta do this! and this! Oh no and this too! Get it done! Get it done! Get it done! Gogogogogo!"

This is a pain in the ass if you're trying to cook, too.. btw.
posted by royalsong at 5:51 AM on August 20, 2010

@davidjohnfox The book I mentioned doesn't actually directly contain studies - it's popular science, but it does reference them if you want to track things down.
posted by curious_yellow at 5:57 AM on August 20, 2010

But I think all that it clears up is that multi-tasking isn't a clearly defined phenomenon.

It's relatively new, this media multitasking. Kids today are certainly doing it more than they used to (I work for the place that produced the report but did not do any writing or research for it). Most of us are perfectly competent at certain kinds of multitasking - scrambling eggs while listening to the radio - and much less competent than we think we are at other kinds, like typing an email while talking to someone. I can edit a complicated or dull report while listening to music or podcasts I've listened to before, but not while hearing the one-sided phone conversations of my co-workers.
posted by rtha at 6:30 AM on August 20, 2010

"Multitasking" is something demanded by bosses, not by family members or friends. So...not only does the concept not actually exist (as Mittens eloquently pointed out above), but bosses are using this word to wring more work out of the worker. Notice there's never a mention of increased pay for piled-on work!

Oops, I may have drifted there for a bit. OP, keep focusing on your single task. In answer to your rhetorical question, I care "if the spelling and grammar of your last email wasn't spot on." Make every single, isolated thing you do the most perfect, floating jewel of work you can make it.
Now that's zen.
posted by BostonTerrier at 6:38 AM on August 20, 2010

My husband is such a mono-tasker that he cannot fold laundry while watching TV. He can only do one or the other. If he's going in the kitchen to get lunch, he can't take dirty dishes along with him, or he gets wrapped up in the dirty dishes and forgets to get lunch. I mean, not even talking work situations; I'll have a friend over and be chatting away while filing photographs and watching the baby, no problem. He cannot have a conversation and watch the baby at the same time. One or the other.

It certainly makes him "slower" about household chores because so many of them are small things where switching among them quickly is helpful, and can make me a little nuts when he, say, puts something away in the basement and doesn't come up with the laundry basket. Gaah! It was right there! He's not so great at following recipes if they have a "meanwhile, while the X is cooking, do Y" in them; they have to have only linear steps. But it's hardly, like, a life-problem. He does work where intense concentration on a single task is to his benefit.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:06 AM on August 20, 2010

Ixnay on the gender disparity; even recent 'scientific studies' present their results with a large, large grain of salt referencing societal pressures.

Towards the OP: multitasking is apparently trumpted in some areas, but not those I'm in; all of the managers and software developers are trying to kill with fire their multitasking instincts because it really doesn't add up to efficiency. This you can see in the popularity of GTD and various tools like monotask and other unitasking-apps.
posted by tmcw at 7:24 AM on August 20, 2010

Marilyn vos Savant says there is no such thing. She says that if you can write a paragraph at the exact same time as you read another then you are multitasking. Otherwise you are just rotating between serial tasks, albeit, usually poorly. It is multitasking only if you use the same part of your brain for multi purposes. Sounds right to me.
posted by JayRwv at 8:26 AM on August 20, 2010

More anecdotal evidence of dubious value here. I find myself tremendously more productive when I focus on one thing at a time. The exception is that when I am working on something that is easy but boring it is easier to keep myself on Task if I do it while watching something on TV that is enjoyable but not intellectually demanding (Castle works, but the Wire doesn't).
posted by thedward at 8:58 AM on August 20, 2010

Seconding the idea that multi-tasking is actually rapid task-switching, which works fine for some combinations of tasks but not others. For scientific research on the subject, here is a list of publications from Adam Gazzaley's lab at UCSF. They work on the mechanisms of memory and attention. (I cite them because I volunteered for a study in their lab and had an interesting chat with the research associate afterward; obviously there are others working in this field but they were what popped into my mind.)

And yeah, they're finding that rapidly shifting your attention among various tasks causes poorer performance than just focusing on one thing at a time. Volunteers who swore they did experimental tasks better while multi-tasking them actually did quantitatively poorer.
posted by Quietgal at 11:53 AM on August 20, 2010

There as an interesting article in the Atlantic a couple years ago that broached this subject; it's more popsci than I'd prefer but it may be helpful.
posted by EsotericAlgorithm at 9:28 AM on August 24, 2010

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