Multitasking just isn’t as effective as we think

Photo by Jonas Leupe on Unsplash

I used to believe I was a master at multitasking, like many of us do. But after diving into the research, it’s become clear: multitasking just isn’t as effective as we think. (I’ll share a possible exception in a moment, though!)

Psychology research has taught me that we humans are wired to focus on one thing at a time. It’s like our brains have a single spotlight, and we can only shine it on one task or thought at any given moment. So, whether it’s talking, reading, typing, or listening, it’s all a one-thing-at-a-time deal. We might feel like we’re multitasking because we’re switching back and forth so quickly, but in reality, we’re just toggling between tasks.

There are exceptions

Interestingly, there’s one possible exception that research has revealed: if you’re doing a physical task you’ve mastered through countless repetitions, you can sometimes pair it with a mental task. Take walking, for example. As adults, we’ve all learned to walk, so theoretically, we should be able to walk and talk simultaneously. Well, maybe not always. I came across a study by Ira Hyman (2009) that found people who talked on their mobile phones while walking were more likely to bump into things and didn’t pay attention to their surroundings. In fact, the researchers even had someone in a clown suit ride a unicycle to see if they’d notice. Turns out, those on their phones were much less likely to spot the clown.

Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash

Do age and multitasking experience make a difference?

Eyal Ophir and Clifford Nass (2009) did some fascinating studies on college students, and what they found surprised me. They discovered that college students weren’t any better at multitasking than the rest of us. To prove it, they created a questionnaire asking people how many different media they use simultaneously. Then, they selected participants from each extreme: heavy media multitaskers (HMMs) and light media multitaskers (LMMs).

Then, they had folks from each group tackle a series of tasks.

What they discovered was quite unexpected. While they thought heavy media multitaskers (HMMs) would excel at ignoring distractions, the opposite turned out to be true. Light media multitaskers (LMMs) were surprisingly good at ignoring the irrelevant blue rectangles, while HMMs struggled, leading to poorer performance on the task. They then moved on to tasks involving letters and numbers, with consistent results: HMMs were consistently more distracted by irrelevant stimuli than LMMs, and their performance suffered as a result.

A video on the study above:

Here’s the truth

People love to say they can multitask, but in reality, they just can’t. And ironically, those who boast about their multitasking skills are often the worst at it. Another myth busted: young folks aren’t any better at multitasking than their older counterparts.

As designers, we need to stop forcing people to juggle multiple tasks. It’s tough enough to focus on one thing, let alone two. For instance, imagine trying to have a conversation with a customer while filling out a form on a computer or tablet – it’s a recipe for frustration.

But if multitasking is unavoidable, we need to step up our game. Pay close attention to the usability of forms and interfaces, making them as intuitive as possible. And expect mistakes – lots of them. Build in features that allow users to fix errors easily after the fact. After all, we’re only human, and multitasking is a recipe for errors.

People Can’t Multitask was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.