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When it comes to multitasking, women are no better than men

"If women are better multitaskers, it is an elusive phenomenon."
Image: Business people using technology in office
Men and women were more than twice as likely to make a mistake while performing two tasks at once than when switching between tasks, a new study found. JGI / Tom Grill/Getty Images/Tetra images RF

Despite it being a common stereotype, women are no better than men at multitasking, a study published Wednesday suggests.

The study, published in the journal Plos One, found that while women tended to process information faster and men did a better job at tasks involving spatial relations, one sex was not better when it came to dividing attention to more than one task.

German researchers tested the speed and accuracy of 48 women and 48 men as they performed two types of multitasking: shifting their attention among multiple tasks and performing two tasks simultaneously.

In the first scenario, both men and women made significantly more errors when they volleyed among tasks than when they focused on one task and completed it before moving on.

Trying to do two tasks simultaneously yielded even worse performance: Both groups were more than twice as likely to make a mistake while performing two tasks at once than they were when switching between tasks.

Lead study author Patricia Hirsch, a professor of psychology at RWTH Aachen University in Germany, said that while multitasking can be assessed in different ways, the new research provides solid evidence suggesting one sex does not have a leg-up in task-switching or when performing tasks simultaneously.

So why the stereotype?

According to Earl K. Miller, a professor of neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the stereotype surrounding women could be due to perception based on the need to do multiple things at once.

“It’s probably do to the fact that women typically have more demand on them,” said Miller.

Of course, the research can’t rule out all situations. “It might still be the case that there are multitasking situations in which women do better,” said Gijsbert Stoet, a professor of psychology at the University of Essex who has studied the link between sex and multitasking. But “one has to accept at this stage that if women are better multitaskers, it is an elusive phenomenon.”

The toll multitasking takes

Multitasking can creep into a person’s routine without notice. That’s because certain tasks that we do regularly enough become routine, and we stop thinking of them as responsibilities that require our full attention, according to Stoet.

“If you are well trained in two tasks, you are more likely to multitask than when you are new at a task,” said Stoet, who offered driving as an example. The more experienced people are at driving, the more comfortable they will likely feel performing a secondary task at the same time, such as talking on the phone. But the human brain is actually incapable of concentrating on more than one task at a time, he said. Instead, we rapidly pivot between tasks.

“We do this so fast that we don’t notice the switching, but it comes at a cost,” Miller said. In fact, in some cases, shifting between tasks can cut a person’s productivity by 40 percent.

Task switching can also kill creativity.

“Your brain has to backtrack to figure out where you left off,” Miller said. “Creativity comes from following your thoughts down new paths. If you’re switching tasks and therefore thoughts all the time, you’re not allowing your brain to travel down those garden paths that lead to really creative thinking.”

Other instances of multitasking can be dangerous.

“In numerous professions, including pilots and doctors, errors can have fatal consequences,” Hirsch said.

Driving, Miller said, is most likely the one area of life affected most by multitasking. In 2017, more than 3,000 people were killed by distracted drivers in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Since the brain is unable to focus on two tasks at once, it's best to avoid trying to do so.

“Put your phone away, put multiple screens away, take away the temptation to multitask, and you’ll find you multitask less,” said Miller, who suggests scheduling work time. “Say, ‘I’m going to focus on this one thing for 15 minutes and then I can check my email.’ Pretty soon that will evolve into 30 minutes and you will be an effective monotasker.”

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