Multi-tasking: Boon or Disadvantage to Efficiency

Introduction

Welcome back! I am your host, Dr. Moira. I hope you enjoyed Episode 1, which was an introduction to efficiency by finding focus. If you haven’t had a chance to listen yet, that’s ok. You can always go back when you have a moment.

For those of you just tuning in, the Coaching Hive podcast looks at topics and concerns that impact health coaches along their journey to guiding clients to improved health and wellness. The Coaching Hive empowers coaches to be focused with their learning intentions while maintaining forward business momentum.

Here at the Coaching Hive, our mission is to be effective, efficient, and have fun so that work becomes a joy, and you have dedicated time for the important things in life like your family, friends, and hobbies.

This podcast is rooted in learning and efficiency. In fact, to be more effective and efficient, each month we will focus on a single topic. That means 12 new learning topics a year AND time to dig in without feeling overwhelmed.

Let’s review a little bit about how the podcast works. Last week, at the start of the month, we began our series and this week we dive a little deeper. As always, I’ll offer you a chance to challenge yourself. I love hearing about your successes and helping you find solutions when you get stuck. I’m here to offer ideas and encouragement every step of the way. Next week, I have something fun planned, and then we will wrap up the month with a “Put It In Action” challenge. This challenge gives you a chance to put into practice what we have been talking about throughout the month in a specific and detailed way. I’ll even include a PDF to walk you through the “Put It In Action” process.

Just like me, you might be busy; you’re listening to this podcast as you take care of other tasks. These podcasts will always be child friendly, so go ahead and play it through your speaker while you fold clothes, prep your dinner, or make the bed.

Now that we have those details and reminders out of the way and you know where we’re headed, we can continue with our topic of efficiency!

The Topic

We are going to pick up today where we left off last week. We were discussing ways to find focus and this week we are going to talk about a key concept that fits right in. It is one that you have all heard about: multi-tasking. But is multi-tasking a boon or a detriment to our efficiency? That is the question we will explore today.

When you think about the term multi-tasking, what comes to mind? For me, I think about having my phone and planner nearby, my email open on my computer, then the actual task that is supposed to be getting my attention pulled up on my screen as well. I am engaging with all of these different possible tasks and current tasks at the same time, at least theoretically.

Multitasking by definition is the ability to “engage in multiple tasks aimed at attaining multiple goals simultaneously” (Sanbonmatsu, Strayer, Medeiros-Ward, & Watson, 2013). Research shows that people pursue multi-tasking for different reasons and with strikingly different levels of success.

Remember, just a minute ago, I asked you to come up with your image of multi-tasking in your life. I said, “When you think of the term multi-tasking, what comes to mind?” Do you have your idea of “multi-tasking” in mind yet? Were you able to think about that example while I continued with my own and even shared a definition with you? Maybe you are thinking, yes and maybe you are thinking, no. We will talk more about that today.

But I do really want you to think of a time when you multitask. You might be multitasking right now; I even gave you permission to do that when we got started. Maybe you are taking a walk and listening to this podcast at the same time. Perhaps you sit down to read and your phone dings with that text or email that captures your attention. Maybe you are cooking dinner and checking your child’s math homework.

Now that you are thinking about your typical multi-tasking endeavor, view that situation from the outside. Are you actually doing two things at once? For example, if you are walking and listening to this podcast have you noticed the feel of the ground on your feet? Have you been paying attention to your cadence? Do you notice when you feel out of breath? Chances are, you have blocked out the feel of the ground on your feet, the cadence of your step, and even your breath. You are listening to my words coming through your ear buds or through your speaker.

When I sat down to research multi-tasking, I set out the articles I had chosen to read, my phone was nearby, and I was also monitoring dinner. I didn’t make it two sentences into the first article before I was responding to a student email, getting up to put the laundry in the dryer (you’ll notice that wasn’t on my initial list of tasks), and checking on dinner.

These examples suggest that multi-tasking may not actually work or be effective. What do you think would have happened had I turned off my phone, entrusted dinner and laundry to another capable family member and had just one thing to focus on? I would have finished that article instead of carrying it around for two days until I did what I just described. Turned off all of the other tasks and focused.

The Research

In an article by Fisher and Plessow (2015), they note that there has been quite a bit of research trying to understand the neuroscience behind multi-tasking. Is it possible? If yes, how does it work? If not, why doesn’t it work? What stops the process of multi-tasking? To understand this a bit more, let me break it down for you. There are essentially two questions here. Do we have the structural capabilities to multi-task and do we have the functional capabilities to multi-task. We also have to ask the question: what would you consider to be efficient and adaptive multitasking?

There are several schools of thought on these questions. The first is that multitasking creates structural issues because we have limited capacity to process information. It creates a bottleneck. When you think about multi-tasking creating a bottleneck, that means that each task must be approached one at a time. To give you a simple example, I couldn’t continue reading the article and move the laundry from the washer to the dryer at the exact same time. I had to complete each task one at a time. Now, serial processing isn’t the only way we can process, we can also process tasks simultaneously, in what is known as parallel processing.

While it is possible that some tasks might be processed in parallel, it might be more likely that the task completion simply mimics simultaneous processing because you are skilled in at least one of the tasks. Meaning, they don’t require much active cognitive effort. They are more along the lines of an automatic response.

Although we don’t know if the actual issues in multi-tasking are procedural or structural, we do know one thing; serial processing is typically more efficient. Let me take you back to the reading and laundry example for a moment. Imagine standing at the washer and dryer trying to hold a printout of an article. You are reading and at the same time trying to shift laundry from the washer to the dryer. Do you think that will take longer than simply taking care of the laundry and then reading the article? Probably so. In fact, you probably will not only be more efficient, you will be more thoughtful, engaged, and accurate in both tasks if they are pursued one at a time as 100% of your resources are being devoted to the task. Just one view that maybe multi-tasking is not the boon that we sometimes believe it to be.

In science, we don’t just want to take the word of just one set of authors, even if they are reviewing a big body of literature. We want to keep digging, especially into a topic that is still so undiscovered. Broeker et. al (2018) investigated the concept of multi-tasking and took a deeper look at individual differences and choices that might actually be occurring. Why is this important you might ask? They looked at the research to try and determine whether a person’s preference for a task over another task influenced how multitasking happened. Did the person switch between tasks or work the tasks as a dual, simultaneous, entity. This combination of neuroscience and judgment and decision-making fields leaves us with even more questions. In fact, when you look at all of the possibilities that go into why, when, and how multitasking functions there are a lot of variables at play. This means, that answering the question, “Is multitasking a boon or detriment,” is not a simple yes or no answer.

The answer is both. Although many people may not be efficient multi-taskers, it does seem that some individuals are able to multi-task without evident detriment to efficiency and sometimes become more efficient when multi-tasking. This is pretty neat. These people are known as “super taskers” according to 2014 Psychology Today article by Kat McGowan. Most people aren’t able to successfully multi-task in the way we think of multitasking, completing two tasks at once, or simultaneously. Supertaskers might be able to do just that and without any detriment to their speed or efficiency! Before I tell you a bit more about supertaskers, let me be clear. Supertaskers only account for about 2.5% of the population according to some research. This is not everyone that you meet. Researchers aren’t quite sure how supertaskers are supertaskers. Some research suggests that maybe the supertasker doesn’t have the same bottleneck in resources when processing tasks. Other researchers suggest that supertaskers are better at cognitive control. This means that they can the individual is extremely good at regulating their attention. They decide what to do in what order very quickly and efficiently. They might be good at juggling tasks without error or perhaps they are very good at ignoring distractions. This kind of cognitive control makes processing more focused.

Are you ready for a really cool fact? This is definitely one I didn’t know before reading more research on multi-tasking. Gamers, video gamers, who play a LOT may actually be reshaping their brains to track up to six objects, the normal is four. This tells us that they tend to have more attentional control. They are consistently training their brain to take in multiple streams of information as they play. McGowan (2014) is quick to note that this doesn’t mean you should spend all of your time playing video games to become a better multi-tasker, but it seems that 30-60 minutes a day may actually help your attentional control. Like I said, kind of neat. We don’t really play video games, but it is a neat concept, and it is truly interesting to think about the idea that we can reshape our attentional control.

So, although some people can multitask with great efficiency, the research does seem to support that multi-tasking on the whole is not the best way to efficiency. If efficiency is key, it is better to tackle one task at a time. In doing this, you are actually building up your cognitive and attentional control that may allow you to be a better multitasker when the need arises.

What do you think of this? It is an interesting concept, especially in a culture where we are constantly on the go. We always have a smart device with us that is dinging, and pinging, and ringing with notifications and distractions.

So, are you ready for this week’s challenge? Take just one task that you need to accomplish. It can be a work, general life, or family task. Just one task. Commit to completing just that task. Make the choice not to give into the distractions. If that means leaving your phone in another room on silent, give it a try. If it means closing your door or asking for time to concentrate, give it a try. Once you have completed your task, observe, think about how it made you feel. If this is the first time you haven’t multitasked in a while, you might notice that you were being pulled to do something else at the same time, like checking your email or texts. Just really quickly, you know. But, you had that pull to pick up your phone. Were you more efficient in your task without distractions? If not, why do you think that was?

Email me to let me know what you learn from this experiment. As I told you at the start of this podcast, I started my research on multi-tasking while multi-tasking. I had to laugh when I told my family what happened. I was getting distracted by other tasks. There was a bit of irony there that my research on multi-tasking was right in the middle of a multi-tasking debacle.

Conclusions

Alright, you have your challenge for the week. With that task in mind, let’s wrap up this episode of the Coaching Hive podcast. To summarize, multi-tasking is appealing in our busy, always connected world, but it doesn’t come without detriments to our efficiency. Although there are some who are able to successfully work on two tasks at once without a decrease in efficiency, this is simply not the norm. This information really makes us stop and think about how slowing down and doing just one thing at a time may actually help us find more time in the day to spend with our family and friends.

I hope you gained a bit more insight into multi-tasking and the impact it can have on efficiency. In next week’s episode, I’ll be sharing tips and tricks that others have shared with me about how they boost their efficiency. Then we will wrap up our month the following week with a Put It In Action challenge. This month’s Put It In Action challenge will include a PDF Planner and podcast to help you craft a meaningful, effective, and efficient continuing education plan.

Take Action

If you want to jump right in to becoming more efficient, be sure to join our ongoing conversations on Facebook, Instagram (@behealthyhive), and Pinterest (BeHealthyCoachingHive).  I look forward to your email or comment sharing what you discovered when you tried completing just one task at a time this week.  

You will find that I try to keep these podcasts brief to fit your schedule with ease but still filled with information to inspire you.  If you find you want MORE than these brief podcasts can offer, be sure to join The Coaching Hive VIP Wait List.  The Coaching Hive is a membership that empowers coaches to take a focused approach to learning with a new topic, master class, Q&A session, and materials each month.  We even have a private mentor community to collaborate through the month on goals, trouble-shoot when you feel stuck, and provide inspiration to keep you going.  I hope to see you in the Hive soon and back here next week for another podcast.  

I’ll see you next week!
~Moira

Sources

  • Broeker, L., Liepelt, R., Poljac, E., Kunzell, S., Ewolds, H, de Oliveira, R.F., & Raab, M. (2018). Multitasking as a choice: a perspective. Psychological Research, 82(12-23).
  • Fischer, R. & Plessow, F. (2015). Efficient multitasking: parallel versus serial processing of multiple tasks. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1366-1376.
  • McGowan, K. (2014). Meet the Super Taskers. Psychology Today, January/February, 63-69.
  • Sanbonmatsu, D.M., Strayer, D.L., Medeiros-Ward, N., & Watson, J.M. (2013). Who multi-tasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. Public Library of Science, 8(1). doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0054402

Leave a comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Like this podcast episode? Share it!

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pinterest
  • The Coaching Hive is Open, but only for a limited time!

    (tap/hover to learn more)

    Become a Founding Member

    When you join us, you can expect to collaborate with a group of like-minded coaches looking to learn, grow, and move forward with their business goals.
    Join Now
  • Subscribe to our podcast and listen with:

    Dr. Moira Hanna, Founder of Be Healthy, LLC

    Dr. Moira is a Nationally Board-Certified Health and Wellness Coach and Master Certified Health Coach, with a coaching practice in Upstate SC since 2012. She has a Master of Science in Applied Psychology and Doctor of Philosophy in Industrial-Organizational Psychology from Clemson University. She has nearly 15 years of experience as a higher education Psychology professor, adviser, and mentor. Moira has been an instructor with the Dr. Sears Wellness Institute since 2015 and has guided over 500 coaches through the Advanced Coach Training and Techniques Course. Her educational background includes graduate level course work in emotional intelligence, motivation, judgment and decision making, training, evaluation and goal setting, advanced social psychology, psychological tests and measurements, occupational health, individual difference, research design, and quantitative methods.

    Moira spends every free moment with family and friends. Alongside her husband and son, she enjoys getting outside, playing, and generally enjoying the moment. Although Moira enjoys an active lifestyle, she is always ready to rest and relax with a good book, the cat and the dog.