Maybe you answer email while listening to a conference call or toggle back and forth between posting on social media and working on a report. In one way or another, most of us multitask.
But the jury seems to be out on whether multitasking has productivity benefits or if it just causes us to lose focus and diminishes work quality. A 2012 study published in Psychonomic Bulletin & Review found that people who frequently consumed multiple types of media—searching online, listening to music, posting on social media, watching videos, etc.—were better able than light multitaskers at completing a computer-based search challenge that included sound.
Sandra Bond Chapman, founder and chief director of the Center for Brain Health at The University of Texas at Dallas, isn’t convinced. She says multitasking is detrimental when you’re trying to do two cognitively demanding tasks at the same time.
"[The media multitasking study] shows that certain senses may be heightened as a result of multitasking. However, I would caution that though visual scanning responses may be heightened, it may come at a cost of deeper-level thinking and the effects will not be lasting," she says.
But does that always matter? "If multitasking had a Facebook profile, its relationship status would say ‘It’s complicated,’" says Corbin Cunningham, a graduate research fellow at Johns Hopkins University. Despite the research done on the matter, understanding whether multitasking is "good" or "bad" requires cutting through some of the hype.
When researchers study multitasking, their studies may be measuring wildly varied tasks. For example, one studythat generated "multitasking is good for you" headlines actually studied people with Parkinson’s Disease who were using exercise bikes while completing cognitive tasks. The study found that combining exercise with those tasks actually had a positive effect on cognitive performance.
While he hadn’t reviewed the study, Charles Folk, director of Villanova University’s Cognitive Science Program, said that result could be due to increased blood flow to the brain, rather than the benefits of multitasking.
Sometimes, even task-related studies are talking about different things. "Some people have taken multitasking to mean: Can you do two things at the same time? Other people talk about multitasking in terms of interleaving tasks. I might be working on email at the same time I'm working on a manuscript. I'm not really doing them at the same time, but I might be going back and forth between the two tasks," Folk explains. It’s important to be clear about the working definition of multitasking to understand the results.
Cunningham says it’s safe to assume that if you’re doing two things at once, you’re probably not doing both to the best of your ability—but sometimes that’s fine. Watching a rambunctious toddler while you’re shopping has a somewhat low risk, because you can always go back and pick up anything you overlooked while keeping the child safe. But if you’re trying to drive while doing something cognitively demanding like texting, you’re put yourself and others in a potentially life-threatening situation, he says.
Cunningham says your habits can also play a role in your ability to multitask. If you routinely do a combination of a less demanding task like opening mail while you’re talking on the phone, you are probably going to be pretty good at both. "The opening the mail practice day in and day out can sort of be on autopilot—mainly because this is a motor movement based task—so you can attend more to the phone conversation," he says. If you want to maximize your multitasking skills, choose a low cognitively demanding task and pair it with something that isn’t too risky if your attention slips for a bit.
Multitasking has a purpose—but it’s not as effective as we think and makes us more prone to mistakes. Doing rote sorting or organizing work while having a conversation with a coworker? Fine. But try answering an email while trying to explain an important meeting outcome to your boss, and both tasks will take you longer, have a greater likelihood of errors, and be more taxing than if you focused and did one thing.
"The brain is not wired to perform two tasks at once," Chapman says. "Your brain is built to be a single-channel action system with limited capacity. It bottlenecks when trying to perform more than one mental task at a time, particularly those that require mental effort."