Multitasking – Myth Or Reality?

Multitasking Woman

Multitasking – Myth Or Reality?

Today’s media have an apparent obsession with the battle between the sexes.

Woman MultitaskingI guess it makes compulsive reading for women to discover they have a physiological, psychological or competitive advantage over their male counterparts.

And the reverse is true from a male perspective.

Scientific ‘revelations’ demonstrating gender difference have the power to raise or lower self-esteem, depending on your perspective.

For some, it may even help create a psychological barrier to combat provocative sexism.

Men Can’t Multitask

You’ve heard it said many times before, men can’t multi-task, women can’t read maps, it’s a boy thing, it’s a girl thing etc. etc.

Clearly huge generalisations.

As humans we do tend to generalise our experiences anyway.

For instance, if you have had bad experiences with former partners in the past, you are likely to generalise and assume that you will always have problems with partners in the future.

This may lead you to think that all men or women are bad. An unfair assessment of course but an understandable one based on the experiences of the individual.

Women Can’t Multitask

The truth is no human, male or female can truly multitask. The brain simply cannot process two high level tasks at the same time.

The term ‘multitasking’ actually originated from the computer industry and was a way of describing how a microprocessor used fast switching to apparently process more than one task at the same time.

In reality, these single core computers were not able to process tasks simultaneously. Instead they would rotate multiple jobs at high speed. This is similar to how human brains process tasks.

Goal Shifting & Rule Activation

Most of us are able to shift focus very rapidly from one task to another.

There are 2 stages to this process.

  1. Goal Shifting – This happens when you switch your focus from one task to another
  2. Rule Activation – This is how your brain completes tasks. It essentially turns the rules off for the old task, and activates rules for the new one

So when people appear to be good at multi-tasking, what they are actually doing is switching very rapidly from one task to another.

Switching can occur in a fraction of a second, but each time you switch, you may be building up a backlog of goal shifting and rule activation. This can cause delays and contributes towards loss of focus. It also explains why we struggle to cope when we have more than one task to do at a time.

In fact, ‘multitasking’ as most people understand it results in tasks taking longer and an increase in human error. According to the Harvard Business Review, attempting to multitask can result in a 40% drop in productivity and a 10-point drop in IQ.

So think very carefully before boasting about your multitasking abilities!

In reality, some men can perform multiple tasks well and so can some women. The differences in ability actually lie within the same gender. In other words some men are better than other men, and some women are better than other women.

Flying helicopters while talking to the control tower, driving fast cars and singing while playing an instrument are all examples of being able to apparently perform simultaneous and relatively complex tasks. And clearly both men and women are able to do these things.

Can We Learn To Multitask?

There is some scientific evidence that the human brain can be trained to improve it’s ability to perform more than one task at the same time.

In a study carried out by Vanderbilt University, seven people were given 2 simple tasks to perform.

All of the individuals struggled at first, but over time and with special training, their ability improved.

Most of us can perform simple simultaneous tasks such as ironing and listening to music. However, driving while talking on a mobile phone requires using the same cognitive functions and therefore performance becomes inhibited. Needless to say, this can be dangerous – for some more so than others.

Younger people in their early twenties tend to be the best at multitasking, but performance declines beyond about thirty.

Scientists have been experimenting with video games for older people and have had some success in improving multitasking ability as a result.

So the key is to keep in mind that multitasking may make you less productive but is perhaps a useful skill to retain. As you get older it’s important to keep your brain active and to find pursuits that will help maintain your high speed goal shifting and rule activation ability.

Are Women Better Than Men At Multitasking?

Please feel free to leave your thoughts using the Comments field below.