By Simon Hartley, Founder of Be World Class.
It has become a bit of a cliché when talking about the differences between men and women. If we are to believe the conventional wisdom, women are able to multi-task far better than men. In fact, the ability to juggle multiple demands has often been portrayed as a strength. However, in recent years various teams of neuroscientists have begun to question whether multi-tasking is actually beneficial... or even possible.
David Strayer, a professor of psychology at the University of Utah, suggests that serial ‘multi-taskers’ juggle two activities at once, not because they are good at it, but because they are easily distracted and cannot concentrate on the job at hand. Conversely, those who are the most adept at multi-tasking are also the least likely to do so, because they are better at focusing on one thing at a time.
Professor Strayer said, “The people who multitask the most tend to be impulsive, sensation-seeking, overconfident in their multitasking abilities, and they tend to be less capable of multitasking”. It seems that people who scored highly on the multitasking test tended not to multitask as much as others because they were better at focusing on completing one job at a time. In contrast those who scored poorly at multitasking were more likely to end up doing so because they were more impulsive and easily distracted, and had an inflated sense of their ability to carry out two jobs at once.
These findings question the notion that multi-tasking is actually beneficial and that simply concentrating on one thing at a time might be more productive. Daniel Weissman, professor of cognitive perception at the University of Michigan, provides an explanation as to why this is. He suggests that humans can consciously focus on just one thing at a time. Maybe 'multi-tasking' is a misnomer. Although we may feel like we’re thinking many different things at once, we’re simply flitting between a number of different thoughts. These findings are supported by those of Dr Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist from University of California at Berkley. He goes on to suggest that multi-tasking is detrimental to both our performance and our ability to focus.
In sport, the ability to switch focus rapidly is a skill that often separates the very best from the rest. However, unlike multi-tasking, there is often a very clear focus. Even though they switch focus in a split second, between lots of different things, great athletes ensure that they're focused on the right thing at the right time. If you're interested in reading more, click here.
There appears to be a consensus of opinion emerging here. It seems that multi-tasking may not be particularly beneficial after all. Maybe we should simply concentrate on the job in hand. Perhaps a simple, clear and steady focus is more conducive to performance. Is multi-tasking simply a symptom of distraction, rather than a skill? Rather than trying to juggle multiple demands, would we be better actively trying to focus our mind on one thing and execute it well?
To find out how world class performers hone their focus, read “Two Lengths of the Pool”. Go to http://www.be-world-class.com/two-lengths-of-the-pool
Hartley, S.R. (2011) Peak Performance Every Time, London: Routledge.
Richtel, M. (2010) ‘Multitasking hurts brain's ability to focus, scientists say’, Seattle Times, June 6th 2010.
Sanbonmatsu DM, Strayer DL, Medeiros-Ward N, Watson JM (2013) Who Multi-Tasks and Why? Multi-Tasking Ability, Perceived Multi-Tasking Ability, Impulsivity, and Sensation Seeking. PLoS ONE 8(1): e54402. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0054402
Weissman, D. H., Roberts, K. C., Visscher, K. M. & Woldorff, M. G. (2006). ‘The neural bases of momentary lapses in attention’, Nature Neuroscience, 9, 971-978.