The Myth of Multitasking

Working or studying from home during Covid-19 means many opportunities for distraction. We're tempted to do two, three, or even four things at a time. While this may make us feel more productive, here's the research behind why it's the opposite.

How does multitasking affect performance?

Some researchers wanted to examine how performance is affected by multitasking. Secondly, they wanted to research whether or not multitasking improved if the participants were able to pick their own schedules. They also wanted to research the old theory that women are better at multitasking than men. They defined multitasking as switching between multiple contingent tasks. 

The study was performed through an experiment of participants randomly being assigned to different work schedules. Participants were 218  university students from the University of Amsterdam from various fields of study. The application procedure ensured that the two genders were represented approximately equally in every session. Participants had to perform two separate tasks, a Sudoku and a Word Search puzzle, according to one of three different treatments. One group of participants performed the tasks sequentially, and worked on each task for twelve minutes each. The second group was forced to alternate between the two tasks approximately every four minutes. Subjects did not know how many switches would occur and the time intervals between switches varied, making anticipation unlikely. The third group was allowed to freely organize their work the way that they wanted to. Subjects could alternate between the two tasks by pressing a button that said “switch” on it. A timer informed subjects about the remaining time for each task. When the twelve minutes for one task expired, the screen changed automatically to the other task and the switch button could not be used anymore. The amount of time spent on each task, twelve minutes, was identical in each treatment.  

Performance was measured as the sum of the Sudoku plus-points and Word Search points. When Group 1 and Group 2 were compared to each other (Group 1 did the tasks sequentially and Group 2 were forced to switch back and forth), the results confirmed that Group 2 had significantly worse scores. The difference in the productivity effects of multitasking for both groups were twenty three points. Participants who were able to pick their own schedule (Group 3) only performed slightly better and scored twenty one points less than the participants in Group 1. The more the participants had to switch between tasks, the more their scores suffered. 

There was no significant difference between the men and the women in all three groups. In Group 2, where participants were forced to multitask, men had a slightly better score than women, but the difference was not significant. Conversely, in Group 3, women had slightly higher scores than men when they picked their own schedule, but again the difference was not significant. The performance improvement for Group 1 subjects was the same for both genders. Contrary to popular belief, the simple comparison of differences did not reveal any significant gender differences. 

These results demonstrate that work schedules can be an important determinant of productivity. Multitasking significantly lowers performance as compared to a sequential execution. This research perhaps suggests that the costs of switching between tasks, which include recalling the rules, details, and steps executed thus far in the task, outweigh the benefit of a “fresh eye”. Subjects who could choose the amount and timing of their switches freely did marginally better than those forced to switch at unanticipated points in time. In contrast, they performed significantly worse than the people that were forced to do the tasks sequentially. 

How does multitasking affect grades and learning outcomes?

Another study was done to assess the grades and learning outcomes of college students who multitasked. It is now commonplace for university students to engage in off-task behavior during lectures and classes. Previous studies found that students spend on average two thirds of their lecture time doing other things at the same time as they are listening to their professor, such as web browsing and going through social media. Phone usage during lectures is similarly very common. Students may also chat with other students during class, or multitask during class in ways that do not utilize technology. In this case, multitasking means dividing their attention and non sequential task switching for ill defined tasks as they are performed in a learning situation. In this context, activities can be referred to as on task when they are relevant for the learning task and off task when they are not. 

231 French students, all studying psychology in undergraduate college, participated in the study. The study took place during the first twenty minutes of a cognitive psychology tutorial session about phobias and cognitive-behavior therapy. There were five PowerPoint slides describing specific and social phobias, a seven minute video dealing with specific phobia, and particularly, bird and feather phobia, an excerpt from a book on a social phobia was read by the professor, and a lecture about these phobias. At the end of this sequence, the students were asked to fill out a four part questionnaire that had the following parts to it:

  1. Personal data and the way that they take notes (paper, laptop etc). 
  2. Personal interest in psychology, cognitive psychology, and phobias. 
  3. Their engagement in two types of multitasking: multimedia multitasking, referring to off task activities involving the use of technology, and non-multimedia multitasking, referring to off task activities that are performed without using electronic devices. Participants also had to rate the frequency and duration of each activity, at which point they did each activity (during the lecture, video, or slides), and which device, if any, was used. 
  4. Learning outcomes, assessed with a questionnaire including memorization and comprehension relating to the content of the course. Memorization was evaluated with nine memory questions that were scored by awarding one point for each correct answer. Comprehension was assessed with three new case studies presented in 5-line texts. 

Results from the study showed that 91% of students reported engaging in at least one multitasking activity during class. Students engaged in a median of five multitasking activities in the class all together. These high levels of multitasking, observed during a session about the cognitive approach to phobias, contrasted with the fact that students reported being interested in cognitive psychology in general, and particularly in the topic of phobias. Further, there was a significant negative relation between multitasking and memory scores, so that high levels of multitasking were associated with lower recall performance. In addition, students who wrote their notes on their laptop multitasked more than students who wrote their notes in a notebook and also had lower memory scores. 

Who is the most likely to multitask? 

A similar study was done to assess whether or not the “younger” generation of three generations of people multitask more, because of technology changes within the past few decades. Three broad generations of people in the United States were studied: Baby Boomers, who were born between 1946 and 1964, Generation X, born between 1965 and 1979, and, lastly, the Net Generation, born between 1980 and the present. One major difference that sets Net Generation apart is that they grew up with computer-based technology readily available and enmeshed in their school and home environments. People from the Net Generation also prefer different communication tools than previous generations. They use a greater variety of media to communicate with the world and their friends. 

Associated with the expanse of technology based media in the home is an ever growing need to multitask. Previous research has shown that members of the youngest generation are multitasking constantly and frequently. 

1319 participants were recruited through individual contact from students in an upper-division general education course (a cultural pluralism course). There were 312 Baby Bloomers, 182 Generation X participants, and 825 Net Generation participants. Overall, there were 772 females and 547 males. An online questionnaire was administered through Survey Monkey where twelve items were asked about that are typically done at home, most of which are technology related. These twelve tasks included: Surfing the Web, Doing Offline Computing, Instant Messaging and Online Chatting, Using the Phone, Texting, Playing Video Games, Listening to Music, Watching TV, Eating, Reading Books and Magazines for Pleasure, and Talking In Person with Someone. Each participant was asked to indicate how many hours was spent each day performing each task. After, each participant indicated if they performed each task simultaneously while doing other tasks, or in other words, multitasking. If participants indicated that they did multitask with that specific task, they were asked to rate the difficulty level of performing those activities simultaneously. 

Results clearly showed significant increases in the number of task combinations that are multitasked from the older to newer generations. When participants were asked how many tasks are done together during one’s typical “free time”, there was also a significant increase when going from the Baby Boomers to the Net Generation. In addition, the increase from one generation to the next was statistically significant. Further, participants born in the Net Generation found it easier to multitask than participants in older generations. 

Although it may seem that there are not enough hours in a typical day to get everything done without multitasking, doing each activity and task sequentially as opposed to mashing everything together may actually be the smarter way to go to get everything done in an efficient, timely, and organized manner. 


Buser, T., & Peter, N. (2012). Multitasking. Experimental Economics, 15(4), 641-655. doi:

Jamet, E., Gonthier, C., Cojean, S., Colliot, T., & Erhel, S. (2020). Does multitasking in the classroom affect learning outcomes? A naturalistic study. Computers in Human Behavior, 106, 106264. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2020.106264

Carrier, L. M., Cheever, N. A., Rosen, L. D., Benitez, S., & Chang, J. (2009). Multitasking across generations: Multitasking choices and difficulty ratings in three generations of americans. Computers in Human Behavior, 25(2), 483-489. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2008.10.012

By Elisheva Hoffman

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