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Can You Multitask? Probably Not Well

Everyone multitasks to some degree or another. Whether you watch TV while cooking dinner, or talk on your phone while browsing through a website, we all do it sometimes and feel fairly comfortable with it. I’d hazard to guess that most of us even think we deal with it pretty well.

For things that don’t really matter much, we’re probably right. But multitasking has shown to affect our ability to learn new information. And the more we multitask, the more stressed we generally become.

New evidence published this week adds more evidence to the downsides of multitasking, especially if you multitask a lot.

The researchers conducted a series of three experiments on 100 college students. (Yes, take the study’s results with a grain of salt since college students may not be representative of the general population.) The studies divided the students into two groups — those who said they regularly multitask, and those who don’t — and measured the subjects’ performance on a number of perception, memory and attention tasks.

The self-selecting high multitaskers were consistently distracted significantly more by irrelevant images they were told to ignore. They also did worse in a task that tested whether they stored and organized information in their memories better than low multitaskers. Not surprisingly, the people who multitask often also did worse on the final task of testing for their ability to quickly switch between different kinds of information identification.

What does this study demonstrate? That across the board, the more you multitask, the worse you generally do in many brain exercises. Whether this is consistent with real-world activities is hard to say, since the researchers didn’t measure any actual activities people engage in.

They also didn’t have much to say about why multitaskers are so bad at these kinds of brain activities. Perhaps they are born with an inability to concentrate, they hypothesize, or damage their cognitive control some how as they learn how to multitask at an early age. What was clear from this data is that people who multitask often don’t do as well a job with being able to focus on specific brain and memory tasks they were asked to perform in the laboratory.

In our increasingly multi-tasking-oriented world, this has significant implications — those who do not multitask at all or very often may be at a distinct advantage over their multitasking peers. In school, at work, heck, even in life.

So next time you need a reason not to allow yourself to be pulled in 7 different directions at once by your boss, point them to this article. You’re likely benefiting yourself by reducing your multitasking as much as possible — especially when it’s time to learn something new.

Read the full article: Excess Multi-Tasking Has Downside

Can You Multitask? Probably Not Well

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). Can You Multitask? Probably Not Well. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 27 Aug 2009)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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