When somebody can juggle lots of things at the same time, we often say that they are good “multitaskers.” All of us multitask once in a while.
But psychologists have been warning us about it for decades. Some say it’s harmful to productivity and others say you can’t do it at all.
For example, talking on the phone while driving makes your driving worse, because you’re distracted. (Laws allowing hands-free cellphone use are misguided; distracted driving has nothing to do with whether you’re using your hands or not.)
But there are other studies that suggest multitasking may have benefits. One study showed that talking on the phone during long, monotonous drives might help keep drivers alert and awake. And other studies show that students sitting in a “boring” lecture may be better off doodling, because the combination of activities keeps their minds occupied.
As someone who works on broad models of how the mind works, these seemingly contradictory findings are intriguing. Is multitasking good, bad or impossible?
What many people might call “multitasking” may actually be something psychologists call “rapid task-switching.”
For example, when you answer texts while watching a movie, your attention flips from the movie to the text. You aren’t really paying any attention both at the same time. When you read a text, you miss part of the movie.