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multitasking (in humans)

Multitasking, in a human context, is the practice of doing multiple things simultaneously, such as editing a document or responding to email while attending a teleconference.

The concept of multitasking began in a computing context. Computer multitasking, similarly to human multitasking, refers to performing multiple tasks at the same time. In a computer, multitasking refers to things like running more than application simultaneously.

Current computers are designed for multitasking. For humans, however, multitasking has been decisively proven to be an ineffective way to work. Research going back to the 1980s has indicated repeatedly that performance suffers when people multitask.

A few research findings about multitasking:

  • For students, an increase in multitasking predicted poorer academic results.
  • Multitaskers took longer to complete tasks and produced more errors.
  • People had more difficulty retaining new information while multitasking.
  • When tasks involved making selections or producing actions, even very simple tasks performed concurrently were impaired.
  • Multitaskers lost a significant amount of time switching back and forth between tasks, reducing  their productivity up to 40%.
  • Habitual multitaskers were less effective than non-multitaskers even when doing one task at any given time because their ability to focus was impaired.
  • Multitasking temporarily causes an IQ drop of 10 points, the equivalent of going without sleep for a full night.
  • Multitaskers typically think they are more effective than is actually the case.

 

This was last updated in August 2013

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