Is This Normal? “I Can’t Multitask”
In this series, we dig into our strange phobias, fixations, and neuroses, and ask ourselves — Is This Normal?
When I was in college, I noticed a friend writing a research paper while watching a movie. I tried it too — but I could neither follow the movie nor write coherent sentences for my paper. In fact, I struggle to perform even simpler “multitasks” — like taking down notes while paying attention to a lecture, listening to someone talk to me while I’m applying lipstick, or even reading a book while eating my lunch. “Multitasking means screwing up several things at once,” I’d read once — that pretty much sums up my experience with juggling different tasks together.
But watching people around me perform these tasks — and more — simultaneously and with ease, made me wonder if my inability to multitask was normal? Turns out, it kind of is.
Interestingly, experts note that no one truly “multi-tasks” per se — people simply “task-switch.” “We just switch very quickly between tasks, and it feels like we’re multitasking,” said Eyal Ophir, who led a 2009 study by Stanford University on multitasking. “When people listen to two different streams of audio, they focus on one, and can only do the most basic processing of the other. So if you’re listening to a voice in one ear, you can tell if the speech to the other ear has changed gender, or if it calls your name. But you can’t tell if it’s changed [its] language, or suddenly starts playing in reverse,” Ophir explained.
In fact, the term “multitasking” was coined in the context of computers, and not human beings. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that word was probably used in print for the first time in 1966 in a magazine called Datamation, which said: “Multi-tasking is defined as the use of a single CPU [central processing unit of a computer] for the simultaneous processing of two or more jobs.”
However, some people appear to be better at “multitasking” than others. Since juggling is about task-switching, how quickly and easily one is able to switch one’s attention from one task to another, and back again, determines how easy they find “multitasking” to be.
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The relative ease or difficulty one experiences while task-switching may, in fact, have something to do with how easy or difficult one finds the tasks too — or how much attention it requires from them. “Natural behaviors like walking, talking, and eating don’t take a lot of brain effort so we can do those things at the same time as paying attention to something else,” wrote Jen Martin, a senior lecturer in science communication at the University of Melbourne in Australia, adding that “how easy it is to juggle tasks depends on how engaged your prefrontal cortex is during the activity.”
There exists a belief that women are better at juggling tasks because “managing children, household, and jobs give women a multitasking edge.” This was disproved by scientists in 2019, who found human beings are terrible at multitasking, irrespective of their sex.
Age, on the other hand, might affect one’s ability to switch from one task to another in rapid succession. According to a 2011 study, as one ages, their ability to switch from one task to another decreases — as does their ability to handle interruptions. “The brains of the older adults proved more rigid, failing to disengage from the interruption and reestablish the neural connections needed to switch back,” the researchers found.
Multitasking also comes at a cost — it may actually weaken one’s cognitive abilities, such as paying sustained attention, reasoning, retaining things to memory, and processing auditory or visual inputs. In addition, experts note that shifting between tasks can cost one as much as 40% of their productivity too — suggesting that it might be useful to get done with one task rather than forcing oneself to juggle several things at once.
“Research suggests the more we attempt to multitask, the more we are training ourselves not to focus. We are effectively teaching ourselves that something unknown — an unread email or the next notification — is always more worthy of our attention than whatever task we are meant to be working on,” Martin noted.
Given how I’ve beaten myself up for years because I couldn’t multitask, it’s reassuring to know that humankind itself isn’t wired to do so. So, despite all the articles on how much employers value candidates’ multitasking skills on our social media feeds, it’s okay to not fit into the rather unrealistic and unscientific mold.