Monday, May 23, 2011

Multi-taxing: The Pitfalls of Task Overload

By Dr. Tony Scinta, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology

Photo Courtesy of andy_carter via Flickr
Chances are, someone is reading this blog on an exercise bike with a cell phone in one hand, a baby in the other, and a freshly changed diaper clenched in his teeth. A bit of an exaggeration, perhaps, but not by much – swap the baby with an iPad, the diaper with a bottle of vitamin water, and add a pair of headphones, and you have an accurate picture of the modern, middle-class American.

Fact is, we live in a multi-tasking society. If you’re not doing four things at once – I’m composing this as I iron my clothes, and I’m driving – you’re not doing it right. Lately researchers have begun to question this assumption. They wonder if the burden of relentless multi-tasking can make it more difficult for us to exert the will power needed to succeed in other areas of life, from the completion of course assignments to the maintenance of a healthy diet.

A recent series of studies attempted to demonstrate exactly that. The studies – five in all – showed that “frequently switching your mind-set or focus uses a lot of self-control.” In a representative study, participants who were forced to “multi-task” in an initial phase of the experiment performed more poorly on a subsequent task than participants who did not multi-task at all. The researchers behind the studies suggest that multi-tasking “can be taxing on the executive function of your brain and reduce your ability to use self-control in other areas of your life.”

Though the studies are recent, the concept being studied is much older than your Grandma’s flip phone. Related research has long examined the notion of “ego depletion,” which views self-control as a limited resource. Accordingly, if you drain your self-control by juggling a number of tasks at the same time, you’ll have left control “left over” when you need it do other things (Hagger, Wood, Stiff, & Chatzisarantis, 2010).

Studies have supported the idea of ego depletion, but, as I always tell my students, it’s important to consider alternative explanations and contrary possibilities. For example, though multi-tasking may lead to a momentary lapse of self-control and an ill-advised bowl of Ben & Jerry’s, might the long-term implications tell a different story? For example, the concept of “self-efficacy” is defined as “the belief in one’s ability to perform a task or to execute a behavior successfully” (Bandura, 1997). High self-efficacy, in turn, has been shown to improve a person’s ability to meet intended objectives (e.g., quit smoking). In that light, the ability to successfully multi-task should improve a person’s sense of self-efficacy and, presumably, his or her ability to manage other tasks.

Is there a clear moral to the story? Not yet. A definitive answer awaits additional research. In the short term, the only advice might be to rein in your multi-tasking tendencies until they reach a manageable level. Life demands multi-tasking, but sometimes it’s important to stop and smell the figurative roses . . . and not update your Facebook status while you do it.

No comments:

Post a Comment