Multitasking is the ability to do two or more things simultaneously. More accurately, it's the ability to do more than one conscious thing at a time. We all walk and breathe at the same time; if we didn't the human race would have expired a long time ago. But performing two different conscious activities together is on a different level.
Women have always believed that they are better at multitasking than men, based on their ability to juggle cooking and childcare while watching TV and phoning a friend. Men, by contrast, do one thing at a time in the splendid isolation of their comfortable offices. US President Lyndon Johnson once accused fellow President Gerald Ford of being "so dumb he can't walk and chew gum at the same time".
The Good and the Bad news
Well the good news, ladies, is it's true. We are designed by nature to do these things better than men. Well, maybe Nature didn't envisage the TV and phone, but it's certainly not easy to run a modern home without at least a little of that ability. Of course we all multitask to some extent; how else could we drive a car and hold a conversation at the same time? But thanks to better brain wiring women definitely do it better. The case is pretty well proven.
But now for the bad news. Multitasking is not a Good Thing. There's been a certain amount of recent research into how people handle multitasking, and one of the main findings is that multitasking isn't good for you. There are two kinds of multitasking. One is where you consciously decide to stop doing one thing and start another; the other is where you are interrupted - by the phone ringing, a child crying or a kettle boiling. Multitasking itself is actually a myth, say the researchers; like a computer we actually switch from one task to another and perform a bit of each at high speed. But a computer can do this in a millionth of a second, whereas research suggests it takes us a good part of a second to switch from one task to another; time during which we're not actually doing anything at all. Studies at London's Gresham College found that people's problem-solving performance dropped by the equivalent of ten IQ points when they multitasked, and their stress levels also rose.
Pay attention now
For example, suppose you greet three friends, each wearing a different colour, and all at the same time. At some point the brain ceases to switch over from one to another and attention cannot be given to all three. The result is stress and confusion. The trouble for us women is we're programmed to accept interrupts (to use the computing term) at a lower level than are men, who generally need to be prodded with a sharp implement before they'll notice the pan has boiled over and the children grown up and left home, so engrossed are they in their careers and hobbies.
And therein lies their advantage. Because they don't accept interrupts they don't switch tasks, or at least do it a a lower rate. All those bits of a second add up and because men switch less they are more efficient than women at doing complex tasks requiring intense concentration. To compete, women need to prioritise better and learn to ignore low-level interrupts in the interests of doing a more efficient job. Of course this doesn't apply to the home environment, where children in particular require immediate attention, so you can take some comfort in knowing that a man would move to another continent rather than do the kinds of household chores most women handle unquestioningly.
Do you multitask well?
Here's a warning to the younger generation who live a life of constant interruption and bite-sized stimuli. Those researchers have a message for them, too. It seems that the better you think you are at multitasking, the worse you actually are. In a complicated study at Stanford University, the shocking discovery was that people who are high multitaskers are actually lousy at everything that's necessary for multitasking. Conversely, people who think they are poor multitaskers are in reality better at it than those who think they are good. So far there is no answer as to the cause and effect - are people with poor multitasking skills drawn to multitasking? But at the very least, heavy multitaskers should be told they're no good at it.
All of this skirts the most important question of whether multitasking delivers good results. After all, can anyone write a prize-winning novel while watching TV and texting friends? It's been commented that people who do a lot of multitasking actually have a poor attention span and need to frequently switch from one activity to another. Although there is place for such an ability, these are not people who achieve anything requiring a sustained level of concentration, but the modern media world makes a virtue of having a butterfly mind and paints serious long-term thinking as tedious and boring.
Photograph by Lioness65