Who’s good at multitasking? No one, according to a spate of recent studies, collected by Tom Bartlett at The Chronicle of Higher Education — or at least, no one multitasks well enough to make it more efficient than doing one thing at a time. There’s also a startling lack of concrete evidence that women multitask better than men.
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This flies in the face of the commonly accepted wisdom that women can do more than one thing at a time — or at least, switch between tasks more efficiently — than men. Bartlett quotes Sir Ken Robinson’s TED Talk on the subject, in which he posits that physical differences in male and female brains make women better at doing more than one thing at once.
“Perhaps, the thinking goes, this difference is rooted in our evolution: While men were off spearing elk, women were starting a fire, watching a toddler, kibitzing with one another, fending off a bear, etc.,” Bartlett writes.
It’s a neat idea, and one that seems to make sense. There’s just one problem: there’s no definitive, scientific proof that it’s correct.
One study finds that women are better at switching back and forth between tasks on a computer; another, similar study finds that men are. Both most research agrees on one thing: everyone is faster when they perform one task at a time.
“For many years the psychology research has shown that people can only attend to one task at a time,” writes Susan Weinschenk, Ph.D. at Psychology Today. “Let me be even more specific. The research shows that people can attend to only one cognitive task at a time. You can only be thinking about one thing at a time. You can only be conducting one mental activity at a time. So you can be talking or you can be reading. You can be reading or you can be typing. You can be listening or you can be reading. One thing at a time.”
There you have it. Even if future research eventually does find evidence that women (or men) are better at multitasking, it won’t change the fact that everyone is pretty terrible at it. Male or female, doing one thing at a time is still your best bet, if you want to get stuff done.
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