Add this one to the latter category, then. A new study published in Psychological Science suggests the challenges of multitasking may be less about whether you’re asked to do two things at once and more to do with whether you were trained to perform them together or separately.
Brown University cognitive scientists Joo-Hyun Song and Patrick Bédard performed two different experiments. First, they asked participants to complete “visuomotor” challenges that involved moving a stylus around a computer screen and following visual prompts. One group performed a single task only, while a second group was asked to multitask by following a series of letters which appeared on the screen, as well. When the participants were tested again later, some of the multitaskers were asked to carry out the single task challenge, while the single task participants were asked to multitask. Lo and behold, the people who performed best were those whose conditions remained the same on both occasions. In the second experiment, researchers found that multitaskers who were asked to perform an entirely new task along with a practiced one performed equally well.
Translated into the real world, researchers found that a person who learns to carry out jobs in a busy office with multiple distractions is less likely to make mistakes than the person who is used to working without distractions and then suddenly asked to multitask. As any busy person will know, the results of being distracted can be disastrous. One 2005 study showed that office employees who were interrupted while they worked took an average of 25 minutes to get back to what they started.
Perhaps the results of this study are an argument for open office plans?
[via Harvard Business Review]