This is going to upset all my female readers, but multitasking isn’t possible. There I’ve said it; sorry ladies. Psychological research consistently shows that we think we can multitask, but our ability to do several things at once is not good. Sure, we can feed the children their breakfast, watch the TV news, catch up on our emails and get ourselves ready for work all at the same time. But the research shows that each of those things is performed worse than if we did them one at a time. Multitasking is an illusion. Indeed, as I suggested just over four years ago, multitasking can be harmful as it can increase stress.
However, we live in an increasingly multitask world. As you read this you may get a message on your phone, an alert to an email in the corner of the screen and a notification that someone is trying to connect with you on Twitter. And all that is happening while you probably also have a window open with that report you are trying to write.
But therein lies the problem. If the world we live in requires us to multitask yet we are ill-equipped to be able to do it, there is little hope that we will cope.
There is, though, a glimmer of hope. Fairly new research suggests that you can improve your ability to multitask by training your “working memory”.
Working memory is the kind of memory you use for storing things you need for the time being. As you read this your working memory will be holding the concepts and ideas I have discussed, the picture you have looked at, as well as other items such as the thought that flashed across your mind about the email you need to send in a while. Working memory is temporary material you need for a short while and can then forget – think of it as the RAM in a computer.
Studies show that there is a link between multitasking and working memory. The people who appear to perform better at several simultaneous tasks are those who have high capacity working memory. That makes logical sense. You can do more things at the same time if you have the ability to temporarily store a large amount of information. If you have low working memory capacity, then the chances are your multitasking efforts will be wasted as you will not do any of the tasks particularly well.
It would appear, therefore, that the answer to being able to perform better at multiple simultaneous tasks is to improve your working memory. And as the video below shows, it does seem that it is indeed possible to “upgrade” your working memory.
An investigation into the impact of working memory on multitasking has confirmed a link between the two.
One interesting consideration is that teenagers appear to be able to multitask whilst older adults cannot do so. Teens can check their Facebook page, watch Netflix, chat away on SnapChat, and Tweet all at the same time. Adults, though, find that difficult. One thing that we do know is that as we get older our working memory capacity fades. We are able to hold fewer items in our working memory when we are 60 compared with when we were 20. So, the working memory link to multitasking could explain why younger people can do several simultaneous tasks online, while older people struggle.
However, there is hope. As the video suggests, it is possible to train your working memory so that you can increase its capabilities. This would mean that even those individuals who have working memory limited by age could still cope in the rapid online world of multiple streams of information if they did a bit of brain training.
True multitasking may not be possible. But coping with the online demands of simultaneous activities could be easier than it seems providing you seek to improve your working memory.
Also, remember, there is plenty of evidence about memory capacity and movement. When we sit down at our computers for hours on end, our memory worsens. Regular exercise, even a daily walk, has been shown to improve your memory. So, if you want to be able to multitask online one of the best things you can do is stop using the Internet and go for a walk…!