Being able to do two things at once might seem like the epitome of efficiency – why waste time doing just one task when you can complete two simultaneously?
However, research has shown that multitasking can actually hinder productivity – and it’s all because of the accumulated time people waste switching between tasks.
This is particularly detrimental when completing tasks that are in any way complicated or unfamiliar, as the switching process will be delayed further.
Researchers at the University of Michigan examined this effect by conducting four experiments in which young adults completed a range of tasks – such as solving maths problems and identifying geometric objects – and switched between them.
During the study, which was published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, researchers Joshua Rubinstein, David Meyer and Jeffrey Evans identified two key models the brain abides by when switching between tasks: goal shifting and rule activation.
While the former involves actively choosing to switch to a new task (e.g. “I want to do this instead of that”), the latter involves “turning off” one set of cognitive rules to make room for new ones i.e. “I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this”.
Whenever participants switched between tasks, the researchers noted significant time costs, which only grew when the tasks became more complex.
While these switch costs were small in isolation, when totalled up for people who repeatedly switched back and forth between tasks, they surmounted to large amounts that led researchers to conclude that multitasking inhibits overall efficiency.
Additional research on the topic conducted at Stanford University supported these findings, claiming that multitaskers have lower attention spans than those who prefer to complete one task at a time.
After conducting an experiment in which 100 students completed a series of tests, social scientists at the university concluded that those who tried to do some simultaneously were easily-distracted and had little control over their attention levels compared to those who simply completed one after the other.
Worse still, one study at the University of Sussex suggests that multitasking could even hinder brain functions.
Researchers looked at MRI scans of people who spent extended periods of time on multiple electronic devices at once (e.g. texting while watching TV) – they dubbed these people ‘media multitaskers’ – and concluded that they had lower grey-matter density in the brain.
This meant they had less cognitive control and were likely to suffer from a poor attention span.
What do you know? Slow and steady (and concentrated) really does win the race after all.