Can we multitask?

The short answer is no. The long answer is also no, but accompanied by some actual reasons.

I used to think that it was possible to multitask. That may not have been the case for everyone, but, sure, some people can multitask. They have the ability to listen to music or watch TV while working on homework or surfing the web. I never thought I had that skill myself, but I had been told by so many of my friends and family that they COULD DEFINITELY multitask. And who am I to tell them they’re wrong? Well, in 2012 I decided they were and I haven’t believed a single multitasker since.

Like many former believers in multitasking, I had the impossibility of multitasking demonstrated to me in class. In a room full of people who were convinced they could multitask, a professor of mine had us complete 2 tasks at the same time and show us that we either could not complete both tasks at the same time, that we were significantly less efficient at both tasks, or that we thought we were doing both tasks at the same time, when really we were just switching back and forth in rapid succession between the two.

I don’t doubt that there are people who can read a book while playing music with lyrics. What I do doubt, is that they are listening to the words of those lyrics while they read the words of the book they are reading. I don’t doubt that people can put a TV show on while they do homework, but what I do doubt is that they are actually watching and absorbing what they have have on while they work on that homework.

Now, I’ll say it probably doesn’t ultimately matter whether people think they’re getting away with multitasking or not. But, my two cents on this are that one or both tasks are being done poorly. Why is it so essential that you listen to music with lyrics or watch that 30 minute TV show or catch the most recent football game while you’re working on something that your brain actually needs to focus on? Is it enriching your life that much? Does it give you a ton of added benefit that you otherwise wouldn’t be getting? I think too many people kid themselves into thinking they’re getting two birds with one stone instead of just prioritizing one activity at a time and completing it well.


  • Deb

    I totally agree! I have also never said I was a multitasker, maybe I would put on music in the background (non-lyrical) but I was never really absorbing it. Does this mean that we should encourage students and peers to not be working on other material when they go to class? This probably more applies to those that have students or will have students that they are trying to teach.

    • admin

      I definitely think instructors should encourage their students to focus on the material at hand. Maybe through explicit instruction, but also through doing their best to engage their students in the class material.

  • Sara

    Hi Aislinn,

    I am 100% with you on this! I used to be one of those people who thought I could multi-task. I would start a show on Hulu and then start working on something… I’d get through a few episodes and be hardly along at all. Eventually, I’d get it done, but I always suffered in the end because of sleep deprivation. I learned (after some hard lessons like this) that I was better off separating my tasks completely. I still listen to music while I work, but there are only certain genres I can listen to without distraction and NONE of them have lyrics.

    Just a little offering: if you or anyone who comes to this comment thread wants to talk about good music to work to, I’d be really into that. I have my favorites, but it’s always good to dust off and shake up the playlist every now and then.

    • admin

      I had a student in the fall who listened to the sounds of running water and wind! They said it really worked for them. I haven’t tried it but it could be a good alternative to music.

      I have two methods that I use personally to get through tasks (specifically reading!). I listen to my Claude Debussy pandora station and I also have noise blocking earbuds that sometimes I just put in to block outside sounds.

  • Ray Thomas

    I think what is missing here is a discussion of a perceived benefit from having sound on in the background doing work. I play music while working a lot of the time as a means to help myself concentrate. I zone it out over time, but it also blocks out many other distractions that might be more detrimental than a 3-5 minute jam session when a particularly good song comes on. I will say that ultimately I have come to see that multitasking isn’t really happening and that I can’t multitask that way I thought I could, but there still are potential benefits to doing activities that seem like multitasking even if they don’t directly relate to the work.

    • admin

      Would it be possible for you to block out those other sounds/distractions by using music that doesn’t have lyrics or maybe isn’t as conducive to a ‘jam session’?

  • Connor

    I definitely agree with you on our ability, or inability, to multitask. But I think one thing for me about having noise on in the background as I do work, whether thats music or a tv show or movie, is that it fills the void of silence. No I am not truly listening to the noise, but it does drown out sharper noises that would distract me if I was working in silence. By having a constant white noise of sorts, I feel like I’m less distracted by the unintentional noises in the space I am working.

    • admin

      I have the same question for you that I did Ray: what would it look like for you if you listened to music that doesn’t have music or some other type of sound that blocks out external noises?

  • Corrie Besse

    Yes! I was also in the multi-task camp. Yet returning to school after many years in the professional field I realized by trying to juggle a number of things at once, I had lost the ability to find my creative flow. It’s been an uphill climb trying to retrain my brain to focus on one task at at time, I’ve found that music sans lyrics really helps. I typically hop onto YouTube and will pull up a playlist from Chillhop and be able to hone in on the task at hand. I’m eager to know if you have any tools/ tricks you recommend!

    • admin

      I’ll have to check out Chillhop! I, like Sara, am always looking for suggestions of new music to study to!

      I usually like mellow classical as my music of choice.

  • John

    Aislinn, I agree with about the problems with multi-tasking on two things that requires your attention but I am person that has to have noise in the background while working. After living four years in a dorm and twenty years of working in an office or a farm of cubicles, I have always had noise in the background to block out the rest of the world. I have evolve to have “talk radio” in the background when I am doing math or calculations but I have to have music on while I write. I do not know if it is a left vs right brain but there is no talking when I write. Even right now, there is music playing and I will go back to the beastie boys when I am done.

    • admin

      Do you feel like you absorb much of the ‘talk radio’ when you listen to it while working? I have so many audio books and podcasts I want to listen to and on occasion I try to listen to them while working but I just can’t seem to manage it.

  • Negin Forouzesh

    I generally agree with your opinion on multitasking. However, I argue that you need to define the word TASK more clearly to be able to support your point of view. I myself would rather to listen to piano songs without words while programming, as it makes more concentrated. Now, is listening to such a music a TASK or not? I honestly don’t care! What is important for me is to find a harmless, accessible and enjoying solution to be more efficient.

    • admin


      I agree with your comment about my needing to define task. I guess I meant more like tasks that require more than just motor memory. So physical tasks don’t require much direct brain power whereas mental tasks and listening to words in music both use the brain.

  • stephanie gonzalez maldonado

    Aislinn, great post! However, I do agree with Negin that defining what you mean by task makes a difference. For example, I find that listening to music while cooking, cleaning, and showering etc. all enhance my life. BUT when doing schoolwork this same music can be distracting, even then I can change the type of music to something that’ll help me focus.

    I like the example you gave with the two tasks you had to do in class. I have many students that think they can be on Facebook and pay attention to the lesson….

    • admin

      Thanks for your comment. I agree with both you and Negin that I should have defined that term more clearly. I think it has to do with brain power versus physical tasks. So I think of mental focus as more like a zero-sum situation where you can only use so much brain power at one time. On the other hand, physical tasks are also somewhat limited. We might be able to walk and chew gum at the same time but we probably can’t chop vegetables and drive a car at the same time. So if humans do one activity that uses brain power and one that uses physical skill, multitasking in that regard is totally possible.

  • Rathsara Herath

    Great post! I agree with you. But in my experience, I would say this depends on the task too. If I’m studying or reading (basically i where I have to give my full attention) yes it is more effective if there is no disturbance. But when I working in my lab or any other similar task. I would tend to listen to some music.

    • admin

      I completely agree that this is all context dependent. When I cook dinner I can definitely listen to music with words or podcasts!

  • Şengül

    Hi Aislinn! Thank you for thinking on multitasking and making us think about it, as well.
    I would argue that along the line of Negin and Stephanie expressed. It is really related to how you define a task. For sure, people can dance while listening to music as dancing requires a different kind of focus. I don’t think that I think it is hard for many people to study while listening to music or while others are talking in the same room. Multitasking has been hard for me for years maybe that’s why I am thinking in this way. Many thanks again for pushing us to think!

  • Angelica Stovall

    You are right, what most of us consider multi-tasking is not actually multi-tasking. We often like to think we can accomplish multiple things at once but in reality we are just switching back and forth as you stated. But what I would like to say is that I do think people can do 2 things simultaneously and do a good job with them both. I need constant stimulation in order to focus. I know most people are opposite but I must have something planned to think about while I am working on something because if not I will end up being distracted by everything around me. So often I will have 2 things to focus on. If in class, I will pay attention to what the professor would like me to be doing at the moment but then I will also have something in the back of my mind to think about such as a homework assignment or reading material related to the subject. If there is a silent moment, I will switch to the second area of thought so that I do not get distracted from the subject at hand. I know it may sounds weird, but it works for me.

  • Davon Woodard

    I agree. I for a while told myself that I was a great multitasker, with multiple projects running like tabs on a browser. When I stepped back and looked at what I was not only putting in, but taking out, was that it took me longer to get “up and running” when I jumped between projects, and felt like a hamster in a wheel. I am now forcing myself to blocks of time for specific projects, and using the Pomodoro technique within those blocks. I think on the back it, it makes me feel more accomplished to say that I have moved the needle on a project, than doing minuscule progress on 10 things and at the end of the day couldn’t remember.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *