We tell you the benefits and disadvantages of multitasking.

Lately there is a lot of information about multitasking, but contradictory information. Some sources say it is harmful to our brain functions, other sources say it is good. Faced with such chaos, we will try to put some order, clarify what is multitasking, whether it is beneficial or harmful and in which cases.

Multitasking is the accomplishment of two things at the same time. But we can find several types, since it is not the same to listen to a friend while writing a message with our mobile phone, to work while listening to music, or to write an email and interrupt it repeatedly because our phone is ringing.

1.- Parallel multitasking:

Parallel multitasking consists of doing two things literally at the same time. Taking one of the examples above, would be to listen to our friend while we write a message with our mobile phone. We are doing it in parallel. In this type of multitasking split attention is running. It is the cognitive ability to effectively attend and respond to two stimuli at a time.

What to avoid? This type of multitasking will be harmful when the activities we are doing are cognitively demanding, difficult or not automated. People do not have infinite cognitive resources. We have a large but limited brain capacity. Our attention can only focus on one thing at a time.

If we do two difficult or non-automated tasks at once, we will have problems, it can even be dangerous. As in the case of having an important conversation, or a telephone discussion while driving (even with the “hands-free”). Probably one of the two tasks that we are doing at the same time is harmed, and it is possible that it is the quality of the driving.

What can we do? In contrast, performing two simple activities, which do not consume many cognitive resources, does not harm us in any way. We can all walk and talk at the same time. Or eat and think about what we have to do the next day. And we can do both tasks quite well. When one or both tasks are automated multitasking is very effective and saves time.

2.- Serial multitasking

İn the case of serial multitasking, it is not exactly multitasking, but it is often included here. It consists of doing several things at once, but alternating them. That is, we stop doing one to do the other and vice versa. An example would be that while we are writing an email, we are called several times by telephone and we stop writing it to listen to our interlocutor. When the calls end, we return to our email.

In serial multitasking, the alternating attention is put into operation. It is the ability to alternate performing two different tasks.

What to avoid? In the case of serial multitasking, it is not clear that it is negative for the performance of the activities. The only thing that could be harmed is the time of accomplishment of each task, that can be something superior, since, being continuously changing of activity we need a time to return to focus.

What to do? Alternating between two tasks can be beneficial. According to a University of Pennsylvania study, the ability to effectively alternate between two tasks is related to cognitive flexibility, that is, being able to adapt to situations and try different procedures to solve problems.

3.- Digital Multitasking

It is very common that we do multitasking on digital devices, because its capacity allows us to have several programs and processes open. We use the computer, the mobile, the tablet, we watch television, almost everything simultaneously. We alternate our attention among diverse social networks and electronic resources.

What to avoid? Continuously switching tasks on our electronic device can easily lead to distraction. Therefore, when one of our tasks is relevant, it is best to focus on it, especially if we are easily distracted.

What to do? Digital multitasking can also bring us some benefit. According to research by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, people who tend to multitask, alternating between various types of digital media, are more effective in integrating sensory information (in this case, visual and auditory). So if you do not get distracted easily, or the tasks you’re performing are not important, digital multitasking is perfectly viable.

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