What is it about?

Multitasking is not new. People have been likely combining tasks from times immemorial. Yet recently, the prevalence of multitasking has reached an unprecedented scale, and people constantly multitask at home, school, and work. But why do people engage in multitasking in the first place? We propose that people multitask when they have several active goals of equal (or nearly so) importance. Although people typically operate in multiple-goal environments, the number of goals they keep active and the behavior-driving power of those goals varies across persons and situations. The more an individual entertains multiple goals, the more they multitask. One factor that limits the number of goals that are considered concurrently is the relative importance of those goals: When one goal is of particular importance, other goals tend to be suppressed; hence less multitasking is to be expected. In a series of studies, we have shown it indeed is the case. In six experiments, we manipulated goal activation or goal importance and investigated how this affected the degree of multitasking, defined as a frequency of switching between tasks (simultaneous task performance can be seen as very rapid task-switching). In two studies, we asked participants to indicate the tasks they typically perform in their day and then plan them in a calendar. They could freely combine or split tasks into smaller chunks (representing multitasking). The results showed that the more active goals participants actively entertained (the more tasks they currently thought of), the more likely they were to plan to engage in multitasking. In another study, we asked participants to perform a set of tasks in the laboratory in a given time block and counted their task switches. While busy with these tasks, we asked half participants to think of the tasks they had already completed and the other half to think of the tasks they still needed to complete. Participants thinking of the tasks to complete switched more. We also tested participants under high and low interruption conditions – frequent interruptions activate more goals. We found that participants multitasked more in the high interruption condition, especially when the interruptions were difficult to ignore or suppress. Finally, we demonstrated that the degree of multitasking significantly decreased when the importance of one of the simultaneously considered goals increased. Specifically, despite having multiple tasks, participants multitasked less when we told them that one task was more important than others or when they were more committed to one of their personal goals than to others. The final study, carried out in an academic context, showed that the importance of performing well in the class negatively predicted in-class media multitasking represented by using phones in the classroom.

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Why is it important?

The fact that the more active goals people have, the more likely they are to multitask can help explain why multitasking is more likely to occur in certain situations rather than others (e.g., busy offices), under certain circumstances (e.g., workload), or when certain means are used (e.g., multifunctional electronic devices activating several goals at the same time). The results also explain why multitasking decreases when one task is prioritized over others (e.g., when a deadline on one of the tasks draws near).


Our results suggest this it is the relative importance of the goals, rather than their absolute importance, that matters. In other words, people will switch between tasks as long as the active goals are of equal importance, either high or low. This has an unobvious implication that people who have several very important goals, all of which are equally important, will devote less time and resources to these goals in a given time block, the more of them are currently active. One can be very motivated, but switching may be inevitable if they do not prioritize any of the active goals.

Ewa Szumowska
Uniwersytet Jagiellonski w Krakowie

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This page is a summary of: The psychology of getting busy: Multitasking as a consequence of goal activation., Journal of Experimental Psychology General, January 2022, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/xge0001077.
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