Are We Evolving into Better Multitaskers? Reply Hazy, Ask Again Later

“Multitasking: the art of doing twice as much as you should half as well as you could.” – Anonymous

Wouldn’t it be great if you could multitask as well as a computer? If you could partition your brain to handle multiple tasks at once, you’d surely achieve peak productivity and get much more work done at the office. This idea became pervasive back in the 1980s and 1990s, as computers became ubiquitous and indispensable.

But while computers made us more productive, today’s experts will tell you there’s a great deal wrong with the idea of multitasking. First, even most computers don’t really multitask; they just switch from one task to another very, very fast. And we all know what happens when you ask a computer to do too much at once. Everything slows to a crawl, until the system either crashes or you must reboot.

Most people who perform what they consider multitasking are really task-switching, just like a computer, except there’s no way we can do it nearly as fast as our silicon servants. When you switch to a new task, it takes a few minutes to fully focus on the task; and if you’re trying to juggle more than two or three tasks at once, you’ll slow down on all of them. Therefore, most experts now urge people to “singletask” or “monotask” instead, focusing on just one thing until you’re done before moving to the next.

Still, as the Electronic Age continues, with its unrivaled speed of technological and social change, there are clues suggesting the human mind may be reorganizing to become better at multitasking. For example, consider:

  1. Anecdotal evidence, especially from parents of Millennials and post-Millennials, that suggests many can effectively assimilate new information while multitasking. My son James, now in college, serves as a good example; while he was in high school, he could watch Netflix, SnapChat, and study at the same time—and remain an excellent student. While I realize anecdotal evidence isn’t scientific, it’s still suggestive.

  2. Supertaskers. We’ve known for almost ten years that 2.5% of the population can multitask without undue stress. It turns out their brains are wired differently, so they can multitask literally without overheating their gray matter, via “more efficient recruitment of anterior cingulate and posterior frontopolar prefrontal cortices.” It must be noted, however, that their efficiency drops as the number of simultaneous tasks increases. From an evolutionary perspective, it’s hard to be sure this represents something new, since we have little baseline data from the 20th century to compare with this phenomenon.

  3. Different kinds of tasks. We’ve also learned it’s easier to multitask while doing significantly different tasks, like talking to someone while buttoning your shirt, or listening to music while driving. If tasks use different mental pathways, you can succeed at multitasking if you stick to three tasks or less. But we have serious trouble with tasks using the same cognitive pathways. Try singing one song while listening to another or typing an email with one hand while you write something else with another, and you’ll understand.

  4. Training helps. This is kind of a “fence-sitter” fact, since it can apply to or against our thesis. The fact we can train people to multitask better is partly attributable to using the method outlined in #3. But it may also suggest an innate human ability to “rewire” our brains, as sometimes happens to people who sustain traumatic brain injuries. Maybe we’re slowly adjusting, as a species, to handle information flow and experience as it continues to increase in volume. But again, we lack baseline data to show how far we’ve come… or not.

Maybe, Baby

Will there be a time, not so long from now, when experts will again recommend we multitask regularly? The answer is a definite, unqualified “maybe.” Like the Magic 8-Ball reply used in the title, the future remains hazy on this point. We need a lot more time and data to determine this — in terms of several generations who haven’t been deliberately modified to handle information better—since we lack a baseline from earlier in the Electronic Era. The comparatively recent, exponential increase in the amount of information hitting us each day may (or may not) be forcing us into a reorganization of the human brain as profound as the one that occurred 18,000-20,000 years ago. That one led to art, agriculture, a greater willingness to work together, possibly even speech … and many other things that made us what we are today. The big question is, what will we be like in a century or two?

About Laura Stack, your next keynote speaker:

© 2019 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored eight books, including FASTER TOGETHER: Accelerating Your Team’s Productivity (Berrett-Koehler 2018). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and a member of its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at an upcoming meeting or event, call 303-471-7401 or contact us online.

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  1. Laura, loving your writing! Can’t wait to read more.

    You make some good points, backed up by what seems like a LOT of research. I’m not disputing you or saying any of your points are wrong, but have you heard of ‘deep work’? It’s a concept from Cal Newport (professor at Georgetown University), which basically supports the ‘singletask/monotask’ idea you brought up earlier.

    I won’t go into the details because it’s an awesome read which I’m sure you’d enjoy immensely firsthand (it’s a book on Audible, ‘Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World’), but one of the things he brings up in the book is that performing tasks activates neurons in your brain — and the more you practice a task, the more neurons start activating and become connected to one another, creating an abundant and solid network of links which make it easier for your brain to tap into. But when you’re switching between tasks and are not deeply focused on a single task — like the example with your son and his ability to watch Netflix, Snapchat with friends and study simultaneously — the neurons begin conflicting (some are for x task, while others are for y task), which means that while his work CAN still be good on account of intellect, he won’t be able to push his cognitive capabilities to their limit, and therefore won’t be studying optimally, which is deemed as what Newport calls ‘shallow work’.

    So I guess the question I want to pose onto you Laura is, while we CAN multi-task, SHOULD we?

  2. George, it depends! What if you don’t mind doing shallow work at the time? Or choose to do it selectively? There are times when I purposefully decide not to be productive. When doing deep work as you describe, it would be ideal to focus to produce quality work most efficiently. However, if the goal, say in my son’s case, isn’t to finish homework quickly, I don’t see a harm in adding some entertainment along the way. In other words, the task was still completed, although he took longer, but he was able to do lots of things along the way. Right now, I’m watching a show, writing to you, chatting with my husband, and answering texts from my 3 children. And having a pretty good time!

    • I guess you’re right! Thinking about it more along with your take on it, perhaps the key isn’t to do one or the other, but instead to have a balance between the two using each respectively when appropriate.

      Thank you for your reply and thoughts on this Laura, greatly appreciate it.