Multi-tasking vs. Switch-tasking
While many of us believe we are more efficient when we are “multi-tasking,” what we are more likely doing is not multitasking, but switch-tasking – a term researchers use to describe tasks that compete with each other and impede cognitive abilities to focus fully on a specific task.
Megan Jones, who is interviewed in Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book The Distraction Addiction, discusses this switch-tasking experiment.
Task 1: Time yourself reciting out loud the alphabet from A to J.
Task 2: Time yourself counting out loud numbers 1 through 10.
Task 3: Time yourself saying the following out loud: 1A, 2B, 3C, …10J.
- Tasks 1 and 2 are automatic (through years of learning and repetition) and are focused on individual activities.
- When you mix the tasks (Task 3), they become non-automatic and actions are slowed down considerably.
So while you may feel like dividing your attention between two simple tasks is relatively easy, this experiment shows that there are consequences for switch-tasking.
There are times when you can make productive use of your time “multitasking.” For example, folding laundry while watching TV or listening to music while exercising. The difference between these examples of multitasking activities and switch-tasking activities is that these pairs of activities can be done effectively at the same time because one of the tasks requires mental effort.
The next time you feel the pressure to “multitask” to get everything done:
- write a list in order of priority of what you need to do, then
- do single tasks in sequence to get everything done.
[Switch-tasking or task-switching? I did various tangential searches on the Internet and unable to find a difference between task-switching and switch-tasking (the terminology preferred by author Pang in The Distraction Addiction). If you know this to be incorrect, please let me know and I will update this post.]