Is multitasking possible? Sort of.

You can get better at multitasking, but there's still only so much you can do at one time

While it is possible to multitask to an extent–we are bound by certain limitations that must be taken into account, Craig Speelman writes for The Conversation

Speelman is a professor of psychology at Edith Cowan University in Australia.

He explains that many people claim to be expert multitaskers, but research has shown time and time again that juggling multiple tasks only produces poor results. He cites a study in which university students' laptops were monitored by a spyware program during lectures. It found that the more students took part in non-course material such as surfing the internet, the worse they performed in the course. 

Speelman shares three principles that explain why there is only so much information we can take in at once:

How to make multitasking work

1. Certain tasks take up more of our attention

Walking and talking, for example, is a form of multitasking that doesn't require too much intellectual or emotional investment. But more complicated tasks, such as constructing an argument or reading a book, demand our full attention to be done well.

2. We have only so much attention to devote to any task(s)

Our brains can handle a limited amount of information. If we're doing two tasks that take up less than the brain's maximum attention capacity then it's no problem, but exceed that limit, and both tasks are a bust. Our ability to multitask effectively also depends on how energized we are.

3. The ability to multitask can be improved

Some multitasking success simply comes with practice, with certain tasks becoming more automatic over time. In a recent study conducted by Speelman, participants were given pictures of randomly arranged dots and asked to count them. The more dots there were, the longer it took participants to count them. But after seeing the pictures repeatedly, they were able to answer more quickly. 

Not all tasks can be similarly practiced to the point of automation, but they can become easier to do with repetition.

Speelman concludes that it is possible to do two things at the same time, but "it depends on the nature of the tasks we want to perform simultaneously, how aroused we are, the extent of our experience with each of the tasks, and how much we care about the quality of our performance" (Speelman, The Conversation, 4/17). 

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