Fifty-four percent of Americans want to work primarily from home after the pandemic ends, Newsweek reported. Doing so would require a delicate work-life balance involving domestic and professional tasks. But is multitasking real?
According to Newsweek, a poll of 25,000 Americans revealed that, having tried working from home, over half would prefer to continue doing so for most of their work week. Seventy-five percent said they would like the option to work from home occasionally. “Once businesses can reopen, 40 percent of people responded that they feel strongly their employer should offer opt-in remote work options,” the article said. “People in America were concerned if America’s infrastructure could withstand moving mass amounts of people out of the office and researchers at Tufts [University] found the United States was largely ready to work from a distance.”
Working remotely, or telecommuting, often requires delicately balancing job duties with personal responsibilities at home. However, studies show that true multitasking is more myth than reality.
Trying to do two or more things at once is an everyday occurrence. We hold conversations while cooking dinner, talk on the phone while driving, check social media while working, and so on. However, these tasks aren’t really being performed simultaneously—at least, as far as our brains are concerned.
“If we’re using our conscious effort to accomplish both things, we really can’t do more than one at a time,” said Dr. Indre Viskontas, Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco. “As [Dr. Daniel] Dennett’s multiple drafts model suggests, there is one dominant narrative in our consciousness at any given time. So instead of doing two things that require conscious awareness at the same time, we do one, and then we switch to the other.”
In other words, when we think we’re studying and enjoying music at the same time, the focus we give to the music detracts from whatever we’re studying. When we stop focusing on the music, we switch our brains back to studying.
Multitasking and Neural Imaging
Electrical signals that fire in the brain while we try to balance multiple tasks reveal more about the myths and realities of multitasking.
“There are an almost infinite number of different ways that we can multitask,” Dr. Viskontas said. “Each of these subtasks will have a different neural signature, so putting them together will also show different patterns of brain activation.”
Dr. Viskontas mentioned that experts no longer believe one activity activates one brain region. Instead, they’ve moved on to the idea of “networks of brain regions” activating during activities, which means multiple portions of the brain come alive when we perform just one task. Furthermore, networks can vary from task to task. One example she gave was reading, which may activate both the visual cortex as we take in alphabetical information and language regions as we interpret the data we’re seeing.
“The more demanding a task, in general, the greater the activation we see in that network,” Dr. Viskontas said. “Just like attention allocation—a harder task requires more attention, leaving less attention available for other tasks. So, too, with brain activation—the greater activation there is during the performance of one task, the less can be redirected to another.”
Put more simply, our brains only have so many resources to go around, and the more things we try to do at once, the fewer resources we use per task.
Our brains can switch between tasks very quickly. In fact, they can do so at such speed that we can convince ourselves we’re performing multiple tasks at once. However, behaviorally speaking, “multitasking” is no more than a rapid shift from one task to the other and back. Neurologically, it drains our cognitive resources and reduces our ability to properly perform each task.
If employers ease work-from-home restrictions after the pandemic slows, Americans should be prepared to learn this lesson the hard way.
Dr. Indre Viskontas contributed to this article. Dr. Viskontas is an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco and Professor of Sciences and Humanities at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She also holds a Masters of Music degree in vocal performance from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She completed her Ph.D. in cognitive neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles.