You Shall Not MULTITASK!


Multitasking, it’s something we are all guilty of. To be honest I’m doing it right now and I bet you are too. In my opinion the concept of multitasking just makes sense, why do one thing when you can do EVERYTHING?

This kid gets it…


In terms of getting things done multitasking equals productivity right? Efficiency in it’s most basic definition is to get more done in less time. From this viewpoint multitasking is key and particularly paramount for anyone leading a busy life in this modern age. Since the introduction of convergent technologies like that of the inter-web and the smart-phone, multitasking is not only facilitated, it is encouraged. Our lives have become so media saturated that multitasking isn’t even a skill anymore it’s a social norm. But what if I told you our brains were barley capable of multitasking and what we were actually doing was simply diverting attention and veering on the path of distraction…


Psychologist Kendra Cherry says that  multitasking, within the brain, is managed by what are known as mental executive functions. These executive functions control and manage other cognitive processes and determine how, when and in what order certain tasks are performed.

According to researchers Meyer, Evans and Rubinstein (2001) there are two stages to the executive control process. Goal Shifting (deciding to do one thing instead of another) and Role Activation (changing from the rules for the previous task to rules for the new task). Productivity can be reduced by as much as 40 percent by the mental blocks created when people switch tasks. This is because it takes time to adjust to the context and processes of the new task. While the time it takes to adjust is minimal, constantly swapping back and forth causes an accumulation of delay.

A study on the effects of multitasking in the learning environment by Helene Hembrooke and Geri Gay (2003) found that students who have their laptops open during lectures and freely browse unrelated material have a significant decrease in short-term recall of lecture information than those who keep their laptops closed.

They suggest the reason for this is that in the context of learning, the implementation of wireless technology, introduces additional visual and/or auditory  information, aboveand beyond the visual and auditory information presented by the instructor.
“There is a limited processing channel that information is filtered through; when this channel becomes overloaded some information is filtered out while other information is selected for further processing”…”Maintaining a balance between what is required by the message, and the distribution of already limited resources to process that information thoroughly, is the juggling act of the information processor”…”Disproportionate allocation of resources may result from conscious and intentional mechanisms inherent to the individual, or attributes intrinsic to the information or message” (Hembrooke & Gay, pp. 47-50).
To put all that simply, the amount of information your brain can process at one time is limited and so it only concentrates on selective information, being exposed to too much info at once causes the brain focus less on each thing and you are more inclined to pay closer attention to thing you are most interested in or the thing that is most exciting.
To further simplify that… Lecture plus Facebook equals Facebook minus Lecture when it comes to recollection.
This study while very important considering the regularity of laptop use in lectures; is completely unsurprising. What’s interesting is the not results of the study but rather the questions it generates. If we know we can’t concentrate on two things at once why do we allow ourselves to get distracted? Why are we still continuing to attempt multitasking during lectures?

These are questions that I can not answer being a student guilty this practice myself.  (However, not in BCM240 because that lecture is too exciting and I would never want to lose concentration). I still believe my self able to multitask despite the fact I know can’t and  I am especially guilty of doodling during lectures and tutorials :S

I’m not saying that multitasking is not important, it is extremely useful and has subsequently become a major part of functioning society. What we need to do is determine when multitasking is effective and when it is merely a hindrance to concentration. The only way I feel to do that is to find a healthy medium between doing several things quickly and doing one thing well.


Cherry, K 2014, Multitasking The Cognitive Costs of Multitasking, About Education, viewed 13 September 2014, <;.

Hembrooke, H & Gay, G 2003, ‘The Laptop and the Lecture: The Effects of Multitasking in Learning Environments’, Journal of Computing in Higher Education, vol. 15, no. 1, pp. 46-64.

Rubinstein, J Meyer, D & Evens, J 2001, ‘Executive Control of Cognitive Processes in Task Switching’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance, vol. 27, no. 4, pp. 763-797.

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