Maureen Pratt

Your smartphone may be able to do it all, but can you?

As our society becomes more dependent on electronic gadgets and gizmos to perform myriad tasks, scientists have been studying the effects, benefits and drawbacks of people whose lives revolve around multitasking.

As this body of research grows, it is becoming increasingly clear that we might not be the multitasking marvels we think we are — and we just might be more effective personally and professionally if we went back to the old “take tasks one at a time.”

In 2009, researchers at Stanford University published an intriguing study in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences” called “Cognitive Control in Media Multitaskers.”

Citing evidence that “human cognition is ill-suited both for attending to multiple input streams and for simultaneously performing multiple tasks,” researchers sought to determine “whether and how chronic heavy (media) multitaskers process information differently than individuals who do not frequently multitask.”

Their results included finding that heavy media multitaskers tend to “allow irrelevant stimuli into working memory,” whereas light media multitaskers were more successful in filtering out irrelevant stimuli and more effective when focusing on a specific task.

In other words, even if someone performs multiple tasks at one time, he or she might not be paying careful attention. Therefore, the quality of the tasks performed may suffer because of a tendency to be distracted.

Researchers at the University of Utah built upon the Stanford work and explored whether our ability to multitask is not as great as we think. In its study, published in 2013, the university’s researchers asked a group of students, ranging in age from 18 to 44, to complete a two-part survey.

The first part asked about their cellphone use while driving. The second part asked them to rank their multitasking ability relative to other college students, and also asked them, “How much difficulty do you have performing multiple tasks simultaneously?” relative to other college students.

After a series of subsequent questionnaires and calculations, researchers concluded that “persons who chronically multitask are not those who are the most capable of multitasking effectively.” Moreover, “Participants in our study substantially overestimate their ability to multitask relative to others.”

The University of Utah study also looked at what kind of personality tended to multitask (in this case, use the phone while driving). The conclusion is a cautionary one: Multitasking activity “was significantly correlated with impulsivity” and “sensation seeking.” Those who use the cellphone the most while driving “appear to be those who are the least capable of multitasking.”

The two studies are not the end of the story, but they offer food for thought, especially when it comes to assessing our own abilities. Perhaps we are not as adept at juggling multiple tasks as we believe.

And if we are not, perhaps it would be best to limit performing multiple tasks so that we can do each thing we set out to do to the absolute best of our ability — especially when operating a motor vehicle.

Also, as a society we should try to “dial back” our expectations to get instant answers, information and activity when we email someone or reach them, wherever they are, on a cellphone.

Multitasking seldom takes place in a vacuum, and if we can allow someone the “luxury” of getting to our conversations or requests one at a time, perhaps the result will be deeper communication, more effective responses, safer driving and overall better quality of work and relationships.