The Multitasking Myth

In Mary Chayko’s book, Superconnected, she explores the widely debated topic of multitasking. In today’s digital age, people are responding to text messages, scrolling through their feed, taking phone calls, and posting on social media while taking on other activities or tasks. Chayko explains that the term multitasking is misleading; that while the term implies individuals are performing tasks simultaneously, they typically switch between tasks instead, breaking the “flow.”

According to a University of California Irvine Study, there is a theory that it takes approximately 23 minutes and 15 seconds to focus again after breaking concentration. This is a concerning statistic given how frequently people check their phones. That is, if you check your phone only three times a day, that is over an hour of work lost. When comparing this to my personal life, I thought about multitasking at the workplace. I listen to Pandora stations and podcasts throughout the day and often reach for the phone to change stations and skip music. Perhaps I would be better off sticking to one channel or avoid such distractions entirely.

It seems that even having a phone in proximity can be troublesome. If an individual avoids responding to texts and phone calls at work, but sees their notification screen light up, they are in a constant state of anticipation. Though the physical act of checking the phone is eliminated, the proximity of the phone still has the power to break concentration. Chayko states, “In general, people who attempt to multitask regularly and chronically suffer cognitive and behavioral deficits. They have difficulty recalling information and are slower at processing information.” While the brain absorbs and processes all the new information, I could see how it would be more difficult to retain information and perform the task at hand. While it is important to take breaks every now and then, the amount of time lost from phone use can add up significantly, even if it’s just checking notifications.

As we continue to move forward into the techno-social word, we will evolve and adapt with the opportunities for instant connection. Chayko quotes Ulla Foehr who states, “In this media-heavy world, it is likely that brains that are more adept at media multitasking will be passed along and these changes will be naturally selected.” As we evolve with technology, it will be interesting to see what is produced over the next few years and what will become of the human-machine relationship.

Chayko, M. (2018). Superconnected: The Internet, digital media, and techno-social life. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Posted on October 18, 2020, in Social Media and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Do keep these ideas in mind when reviewing midterm exam options!

  2. Bonnie,

    Great post! I vividly remember learning about this topic in high school psychology so it was really neat to see it again in the reading. My teacher always said to us that there isn’t no such thing as true multitasking, but rather what we are normally doing, it “multiswitching” as she would like to call it. It is definitely an intriguing concept to think about in the workplace. I often juggle between several different things at my job including designing, researching, as well as having my spotify playlist playing in the background. In my case, I noticed that I can’t really focus on anything if I am listening to music with lyrics or podcasts. I often get lost in what I am listening to and can’t focus on my job. I have to listen to music with no lyrics as that is less of a distraction. This helps a lot as I am switching between different tasks at work.

    Jackson

    • Hi Jackson! I agree. I typically only listen to music but recently switched it up by listening to podcasts. However, I feel with podcasts even more so than music, I often lose focus because I would get wrapped up in what they were talking about. I guess it depends on what type of work I’m doing as well. If I know I will be working on something tedious for several hours, it doesn’t hurt, but if the work involves more concentration, it’s probably best to “unplug.”

  3. Nathan Baughman

    Hi Bonnie,
    I’m right there with you about listening to podcasts/music while doing another task. However, I do notice that when I listen to a podcast while doing something like cooking, cleaning, or doing homework I don’t absorb much of it at all. What purpose I think it does serve is creating more of an ambience, and maybe drowning out other potentially distracting sounds or even thoughts. However, if I’m on a longer road trip, and am on the highway with my vehicle on cruise, I can pay attention to the podcast just fine. I think there are certain tasks we can do that don’t take up much of our working memory, like walking or bike riding, that allow us to focus on something else.

  4. Hi Nathan! As mentioned in my response to Jackson, I still find myself getting wrapped up in the podcast instead of focusing on what I need to be working on. However, I completely agree with being able to concentrate more on a podcast when it doesn’t take up the working memory. Similar to your example about the long road trip, I enjoy listening to music while running. It helps drown out my thoughts, focus on my breathing, and stay motivated.

  5. Hi Bonnie,

    I find the concept of multitasking so intriguing, especially how, like you said, humans never truly simultaneously do two actions at one time with equal attention to both. I definitely agree with the assertion that multitasking is more realistically a person jumping between actions, but in the interim, this switching between tasks leads to less performance and efficiency. As you cited the University of California Irvine Study, it takes roughly 23 minutes to recenter your task after breaking your attention with a given task. I find this extremely accurate when I try working with my phone screen in sight. Every few minutes, I pick it up and waste twice as much time looking at it versus the amount of time I actually work. I have learned if I truly want to focus for an extended period of time, I need to have my phone out of sight. It can even be hiding behind my laptop screen and I do not reach for it as much! For me, it is about limiting the urge to “multitask” while working and browsing my phone.

    Great post!

    Bailey

  6. rebeccaanderson8641

    Hi Bonnie,
    Interesting post. I remember reading an article that proposed the idea of allowing high schoolers allotted time to check their social media. The idea being that they experienced such distraction with the sense of anticipation that they couldn’t focus on class work. I thought the notion was a bit absurd; to me it was bandaiding a much larger problem. However, in the context of multi tasking, building break times in to a student’s day could alleviate some of the desire to multitask inefficiently. The ability to multitask is almost prized today; I wonder if that is a good thing!
    Great job!

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