100 Things You Should Know About People: #7 — You Actually Can't Multi-Task

I know it’s popular to think that you are multi-tasking, but the research is clear that people actually can’t multi-task, with one specific exception.

One thing at a time — For many years the psychology research has shown that people can only attend to one task at a time. Let me be even more specific. The research shows that people can attend to only one cognitive task at a time. You can only be thinking about one thing at a time. You can only be conducting one mental activity at a time. So you can be talking or you can be reading. You can be reading or you can be typing. You can be listening or you can be reading. One thing at a time.

We fool ourselves — We are pretty good at switching back and forth quickly, so we THINK we are actually multi-tasking, but in reality we are not.

The one exception — The only exception that the research has uncovered is that if you are doing a physical task that you have done very very often and you are very good at, then you can do that physical task while you are doing a mental task. So if you are an adult and you have learned to walk then you can walk and talk at the same time.

Then again, maybe there isn’t an exception —  Even this doesn’t work very well, though. A study being published in December shows that people talking on their cell phones while walking, run into people more often and don’t notice what is around them. The researchers had someone in a clown suit ride a unicycle. The people talking on a cell phone were much less likely to notice or remember the clown.

But the millennial generation can multi-task, right? — A study at Stanford University demonstrates well that multi-tasking doesn’t work, even with college students. Clifford Nass’s study (published in August of 2009 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences), found that when people are asked to deal with multiple streams of information they can’t pay attention to them, can’t remember as well, and don’t switch as well as they would have thought.

So what should you do? — One thing at a time!

For more information:

on the Stanford study:Stanford Study on Multi-Tasking

On the clown and unicycle research: Ira E. Hyman Jr *, S. Matthew Boss, Breanne M. Wise, Kira E. McKenzie, Jenna M. . “Did you see the unicycling clown? Inattentional blindness while walking and talking on a cell phone”. Applied Cognitive Psychology, December, 2009.


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11 Replies to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #7 — You Actually Can't Multi-Task”

  1. I’m curious how this applies to drawing/doodling while listening? I always found that my mind stayed more focused upon lectures and sermons while I drew at the same time, as opposed to taking notes while listening (my mind wandered more often while taking notes).

  2. I disagree. Rather, I suspect that parallel processing is a constant, but that a person is only aware of that processing in sequence.

    So, when Jessica M is doodling while listening, her brain is processing information for both tasks simultaneously, but she is only aware of one or the other (or other noise) at any time.

  3. It depends on whether the “tasks” have a symbiotic relationship or not and which areas of the brain are being occupied while I tackle a particular tasks to achieve a goal. I’d say that my creativity, when I draw, or write or design anything is greatly enhanced while listening to music at the same time, but I can’t think as well rationally when I listen to music with lyrics because they intrude into my streams of words that are going about in my head.

  4. Pingback: The True Cost of Multi-tasking | What Makes Them Click
  5. And what do you think about listening to music and typing, for example, at the same time? Are there any studies about this type of multi-tasking?

    1. Alyona — If the music has no words that it won’t interfere with typing very much. You are taking in sensory input (the music) while doing one task (typing). But if it is music that has words and you are writing a report or something difficult (i.e., more than just typing a quick hello in an email) then there might be some interference as you listen to one set of words while composing a different set.

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