HBR: How to make multitasking work

It's all about how you first learn the task

If you have to multitask, it's best to do it from the start, according to research profiled by Walter Frick in the Harvard Business Review.

Frick notes that there is a long line of research showing multitasking's negative effects on performance. But sometimes workers have no other choice, and they must juggle multiple tasks simultaneously. In those cases, performing well may be a matter of how you first learned to complete the tasks, according to new research in Psychological Science

For the research, scientists at Brown University had people complete a "visuomotor" exercise on a computer. Participants were asked to move a stylus around in response to visual cues. One group reacted to dots, while another—the multitaskers in the study—responded to dots and letters.

Later, a portion of each group swapped: Some multitaskers became single taskers and vice versa. During the second round, the group which performed best were multitaskers who had juggled tasks in the first round as well. They were able to recall how to complete their task even more strongly than multitaskers who transitioned to only one task.

Related: You're never bored, and that's a problem

The results mirror other experiments on learning and memory, which have found context is an important factor in cognitive performance. People tend to recall information most evenly in the context that they learned it.

Frick hypothesizes that the research could help office workers. "If you're typing while listening to a conference call, maybe you're less likely to make mistakes if you were equally distracted when you originally learned to type," he writes.

Even so, Frick argues, "the best advice is still to avoid multitasking whenever possible" (Frick, Harvard Business Review, 1/6 [subscription required]).


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