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Why Does Multitasking Work Better on Computers Than on People?

By Arooj Shakeel
October 4, 2023

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We’ve all experienced it. In a noisy office, you’re attempting to focus. You have eight websites open on your computer, two email accounts, three documents, a spreadsheet, two pdfs, and at least one social networking site. 

You’ve been working on your computer for hours, but nothing is getting done. And the trend towards multitasking is wider than in the workplace. You appear to be working on at least five different things simultaneously, and just as you get into one, you receive an email or message about another, and you switch to that instead. In 2014, it was discovered that 99% of adults use two forms of media simultaneously. 

We could choose not to check our email as frequently or turn off alerts, but we don’t. Even though multitasking gives the impression that we are saving time, there is a persistent sense that finishing one task before beginning another might be more effective.

What does science have to say about “multitaskers,” who are frequently found? And, perhaps most importantly, are we truly more efficient when we multitask?

Let us begin by defining multitasking. This is a computer concept in which the most powerful processors are those that can perform multiple tasks at the same time. Now, if our brain functions like a supercomputer, we must be able to multitask. That is only sometimes the case, however. 


What does the brain prefer?

The monochronic assumption in psychology is the belief that finishing one task before beginning the next is always preferable. Allen Bluedorn’s research over several decades has revealed that, unsurprisingly, it is a matter of personal preference. Some people prefer monochronicity and prefer to finish one task before beginning the next. 

Others are polychronic, meaning they perform better when doing multiple things at once and excel in jobs that require them to do so. Running a busy cafe is a good example, though this does not necessarily imply that the jobs are completed faster. In a cafe, you have no choice but to jump from task to task.

Multitasking has a bad reputation. At first glance, the research on mandatory multitasking appears discouraging. In some studies, participants are given two tasks to complete simultaneously. Others define multitasking as switching back and forth between different tasks until they are completed. The fact that you’re doing them within the same block of time rather than simultaneously indicates how frequently this occurs at work.


Multitasking’s Impact on Performance and Productivity

Driving a car, for example, requires the driver’s complete attention, although it is a routine task. What happens if you drive while talking or typing on your smartphone? 

According to Carnegie Mellon University research, up to 37% of our attention is diverted from the primary task. Every three seconds we take our eyes off the road, we lose up to 49 feet of travel. As a result, the use of smartphones while driving is strictly prohibited. Isn’t it dangerous?

Another intriguing study involved two groups of people watching a soccer match. One group was shown subtitles and told not to read them and instead concentrate on the game. The other group had no subtitles and was solely focused on the game.  Following that, both groups were assigned mathematical problems to solve. The group that did not have subtitles performed better on the exercises than the group that did have subtitles. Those who watched the game with subtitles had to fight the urge to divert their attention. This self-control required a greater brain energy expenditure, resulting in poor cognitive performance.

According to some neuroscientists, our brain expends a fixed amount of energy focusing on a given task when exercising self-control. We experience mental exhaustion and a decline in our capacity to solve problems if we spend our limited energy on various distractions that are presented to us every day. Scientists advise against solving problems requiring complex analysis in the afternoon.

People who have suffered from the now-common burnout syndrome, which relates to exceeding human capacity in multitasking, are becoming more common. According to Sophia Kahill, a researcher at York University, burnout causes a slew of central nervous system symptoms such as hyperacusis, difficulty concentrating, difficulty sleeping, stress, and anxiety.

Have you ever worked on a project that needed a formal development methodology? Problem-solving, focus, and concentration are fundamental to software programming tasks by their very nature. Agile methodologies are available to help us organize our work, maintain focus, and avoid unnecessary multitasking. 

Finally, with all of today’s talk of work-life balance and 24-hour schedules, it’s worth remembering that multitasking and time constraints are not unique to modern life. “One thinks with a watch in one’s hand even as one eats one’s midday meal while reading the latest news of the stock market,” Nietzsche said in 1887, describing a feeling that seems familiar today.

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