Why Do We Multitask?

By Kaylor Jones

Woman working on the computer and talking on the phone

College students are virtually always doing two things at once – if the notes are out, the TV’s on, and practically every student is guilty of writing an essay while simultaneously listening to podcasts, texting, and eating lunch. Every lecture hall is a sea of open laptops with people checking their email and reading the latest news while listening – or trying to listen – to the professor. Scientists have doled out study after study about how attempting to complete multiple tasks at once can lower your performance in one or both of them, but some students swear by listening to music while reading their textbook or writing a paper. So what is the truth?

Why People Multitask

A 2012 study from Ohio State University concluded that although people aren’t very good at most types of multitasking, they do it because it makes them feel good. The study, conducted specifically with college students, showed that some people misperceive their feelings of satisfaction as productivity, when in reality, they are actually feeling more emotionally rewarded by their work.

For example, a student who watched TV while reading a book reported higher feelings of satisfaction than another who read without outside distractions. This is possibly because the first student felt more entertained during the task itself, even though they also reported poorer performance. In addition, people who multitask often grow accustomed to it, meaning they develop a habitual need that makes them more likely to continue. The long-term influences of this feedback loop have not yet been examined, but scientists are worried about the cognitive impacts of frequent multitasking.

In addition to the enhanced engagement we receive from multitasking, our culture’s idea of productivity may also contribute to the perpetuation of this trend. In the Western world, productivity is frequently used as the standard measure of accomplishment, and in a capitalist society where “time is money,” this makes fits right in. Why spend two hours doing nothing but listening to a professor speak about business ethics or psychological theories when you can finish up your essay at the same time? And when overall happiness is often gauged by how much one achieves, the answer to the question, “Did you have a good day?” is often dependent on how much you got done.

Perhaps these ideas stray from more fulfilling measures of accomplishment and happiness. Is there anything intrinsically less respectable about spending time doing one thing to the best of your abilities? Or by measuring productivity by how many friends you spent time with during the day, how many new things you learned or how many jokes you told? While every person is influenced to some degree by the ideals of the culture they were born into, only the individual can answer these questions for themselves.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University.

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