Thursday, June 12, 2014

Women are better than men at multitasking, but are they more productive?

While writing my previous post, I came across various articles regarding the differences between women and men in their ability to multitask.

Are women better at multitasking than men or is it a myth?
There is certainly a common belief that women are better than men at multitasking.  This idea has its roots in human evolution and is associated to the fact that in early human civilizations women tended to be the gatherers while men were usually the hunters.  In these societies, women had to accomplish several tasks, including take care of the children, prepare food for the family, water fetching, etc.  So, the common belief is that this division of tasks between women and men would have prepared women better than men to multitask or accomplish several tasks at the same time.  But, is this really true?  Let’s say that women are better than men to multitask, does it mean that they accomplish all the tasks well or efficiently?

I was particularly surprised to find that the differences in gender regarding multitasking have been the subject of several studies recently.  Overall, most of these studies indicate that, indeed, women are better at multitasking than men.  For example, after scanning brains of 949 people, Dr. Ragini Verma and various colleagues from the University of Pennsylvania found that women are better at multitasking but men are better at concentrating on a single task.  The researchers also found that women have far better connections between the left and right sides of the brain, while men display more intense activity within the brain’s individual parts, especially in the cerebellum, which controls motor skills.  Another interesting finding from this study was that men have better connections between the front and back of the brain, giving them a better ability to quickly perceive information and use it immediately to carry out complex tasks. Click here to read more about this study.

Another study that I found worthy of note was the one conducted by Drs. Laws and Stoet from the University of Hertfordshire.  In this case, he gave 50 male and 50 female students 8 minutes to perform three tasks at the same time: carrying out simple maths problems, finding restaurants on a map and sketching a strategy for how they would search for a lost key in an imaginary field.  As they conducted the tasks, the volunteers also received a phone call that they could either choose to answer or not. If they did answer, they were given an additional general knowledge test while they continued to carry out their other activities. While women were able to perform well in all four activities at once, men performed, on average, worse when it came to planning to search for the key. These differences between women and men in terms of their ability to multitask could have important consequences for how workplaces are organized.  According to Dr. Stoet "Multitasking is getting more and more important in the office - but it's very distracting, all these gadgets interrupting our workflow. It could be that men suffer more from this constant switching”. Click here to read more about this study.

Multitasking or task-switching
Now, let's do some clear reasoning. If the studies summarized above are correct, we can say that women are generally better than men at multitasking. But, is this actually good? Within the context of productivity or accomplishment of tasks (i.e., effectiveness), are women really more effective than men because they are able to multitask better?  

Personally, I think that even though women may be able to multitask better than men, we cannot conclude that women are generally more efficient or productive than men.  During my research about the topic of multitasking, I found a good number of articles discussing the dangers of multitasking, especially when talking about productivity or work effectiveness.  Multitasking is considered to be worse than unhelpful in terms of productivity because it makes everything we do to take longer, affecting negatively the quality of our work.

Furthermore, it appears that the concept of multitasking itself is a myth.  In a Psychology Today article, "The True Cost of Multi-tasking", the author (Dr. Susan Weinschenk, Behavioural psychologist), argues we cannot actually perform more than one high-order cognitive task at a time. Interestingly, Dr. Weinschenk also suggests that what appears to be multitasking is actually constant task switching.  So, all these years when I thought that I was multitasking (which you have to admit, sound a little bit sophisticated or glamorous than task switching!), I was actually just switching tasks. 

According to Dr. Weinschenk, there has been a lot of research on task switching and the main findings are clear:
·        It takes more time to get tasks completed if you switch between tasks instead of focusing on one task at a time.
·        You make more errors when you switch from one task to the other, especially if you are performing complex tasks.
·        Each task-switch might waste only 1/10th of a second, but if you do a lot of switching in a day, it can add up to a loss of 40% of your productivity. 
In other words, it usually takes more time to complete properly a task when we are multitasking or task switching than when we are focusing exclusively on one task, partially because we make more mistakes.  Every time we switch, there is a loss of efficiency as we disengage from one task and pick up the thread on the other task.

Practical Conclusions
Although it may be true that women and men differ in their ability to multitask or task switching, they both would get more done and get it done better, if they stuck with one task until it is finished, before moving onto the next.  So, even if you think that because you are very good at multitasking, you should ask yourself whether or not this balancing act is really helping you to be more productive or efficient. 

As Roger Kay from concluded in a very interesting article (click here to read this article) about multitasking: "Multitask where you can, task switch when you have to, and focus on the job at hand as much as possible for the best results". 

So, let's follow the example of little children, and focus on one task at a time!

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