Productivity in Peril: Higher and Higher Rates of Technology Multitasking

This article is part of our special issue “Connected State of Mind,” which explores the impact of tech use on our behavior and relationships. View the complete issue here.

If you’re reading this on your computer, you might be listening to music too. Maybe you have the news or a game on the TV in the background, and your phone is by your side as you wait for an important text. Perhaps you just stopped reading for a second to reply to an email and then popped into a new tab to post on social media. Now your Fitbit dinged to remind you to hit your steps for the day.

Phew! It’s exhausting to read about everything you’re attempting to do all at once. Yet as technology becomes more prevalent, multitasking is becoming more and more common across all generations. That’s right—it’s not just the youngest generations that are trying to do two or three or, as in the scenario above, seven things at the same time.

We’ve conducted two of the largest studies on how people from different generations multitask, from Baby Boomers to the iGeneration. We first had the chance to study multitasking using data collected in 2008—when the iPhone was celebrating its first birthday and Apple released the fourth generation of the iPod Nano. We’ve now had the chance to analyze updated data, collected in 2014, and are reporting the results here for the first time. (These new results are being prepared to submit to peer review.)

Due to fundamental mental processing limitations, it’s likely that multitasking is negatively impacting important tasks like studying, reading, processing the news, and engaging in serious face-to-face conversations.

So how do multitasking in 2008 and 2014 compare? Has it increased? If so, how much? Have we improved as technology has become more ubiquitous?

First, a little background. In the mid- and late-2000s it was shown that young people multitask heavily with personal technology in a variety of settings, including while watching television and working on a computer. Recent studies have begun to detail the kinds of multitasking done by children and teens, including at home when studying. While much of the research has focused on how younger generations are using technology, studies examining wider ranges of ages are rare. Yet these studies are especially important, because each generation grows up with a unique set of media-related technologies that possibly influences how members of the generation behave at work, at school, and at home. People born in a certain period may become attached to the media that they grow up with and develop both a distinct pattern of media use as well as particular attitudes toward technology.

Baby Boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) grew up with radio and television; Generation X (born between 1965 and 1979) grew up with personal computers and computer-based gaming; the Net Generation (born between 1980 and 1989) was influenced by the Internet and World-Wide Web; the iGeneration (born in 1990 or later) experienced cell phones, console gaming, tablet computing, and other new technologies. So knowing on which generation you’re a part of can help explain why you (or your parents or grandparents) might still use the word “VHS” or why you store a bunch of CD sleeves in the closet.

In our first study, using data collected in 2008 in the United States, we compared Baby Boomers, Generation X, and the Net Generation. By asking 1,319 participants to self-report their technology usage on a “typical day,” we calculated how many of the 66 pairs of nine everyday technologies (e.g., going online, texting, video gaming) and three other common tasks (e.g., talking to someone face-to-face, reading a book) they attempted to combine for multitasking. An example of multitasking in our study might be using your phone to talk to someone while simultaneously surfing the web.

The results showed that Net Geners attempted to multitask more than Generation X, who did so more than Baby Boomers. Further, all of the rates of multitasking were high: The average percentage of possible task pairs attempted by each generation—including the common tasks—was 59 percent for Baby Boomers, 67 percent for Generation X, and 75 percent for the Net Generation.

A second major study, conducted in the Netherlands in 2010, also explored multitasking across generations and found similar results. Researchers used diary entries from more than 3,000 individuals in a sample that approximated the demographics of Dutch society.

Participants recorded their technology and media use from one 24-hour period. They also noted when they used more than one medium at a time. Analysis of the diary entries revealed that the group who did the most multitasking was the 13 to 16 year olds (part of the iGeneration) and the group with the second highest amount of media multitasking was the 50 to 65 year olds. The younger group did quite a bit of multitasking while using social media; the older group tended to multitask while emailing and while listening to the radio. Based on their data, the authors rightfully concluded that it is incorrect to think that young people multitask the most. Nevertheless, all age groups spent significant time multitasking with media. For all but one of the groups, more than one fifth of the time spent using media involved multitasking.

Many people believe the myth that members of the younger generations, those who grew up during the recent tech boom with phones in their cribs and laptops at school, can multitask effectively.

Which brings us to our latest data collected in 2014. In the six years after 2008, social media became widespread, smartphone penetration deepened, and apps became rampant. The new data reveal increases in multitasking for all generations. By 2014, the rates of attempted task pairings rose to 67 percent, 70 percent, and 81 percent, for Baby Boomers (7 percent increase), Generation X (3 percent increase), and the Net Generation (6 percent increase), respectively. In addition, iGeneration young adults included in this study reported attempting to multitask 87 percent of the task pairs.

Many people believe the myth that members of the younger generations, those who grew up during the recent tech boom with phones in their cribs and laptops at school, can multitask effectively. Research shows otherwise. Cognitive psychologists have long known about basic limitations in our psychological architecture that include perceptual constraints, central bottlenecks, and motor restrictions. These limitations prevent people from carrying out multiple tasks at once, from combining certain tasks for multitasking, or from switching between tasks without consequences. At school, for example, multitasking in the classroom interferes with learning. It creates distraction, requires divided attention, and reduces memory, productivity, and performance.

In the 2008 study, we asked each participant to rate the difficulty of combining pairs of tasks for multitasking. For example, how difficult is to watch TV and send text messages versus play video games and talk on the phone? These data revealed very high correlations between generations not only in which tasks they chose to combine for multitasking in their daily lives (all rs > .80) but also in which combinations were most difficult (all rs > .85). Rated as most difficult to multitask was trying to talk to someone face-to-face while using the computer for tasks other than being online (e.g., using a spreadsheet); rated as easiest was eating and listening to music at the same time. Video gaming was the hardest task to multitask with other tasks.

These correlations reflect fundamental limitations in human information processing—limitations that are shared among generations. Though the youngest generation multitasked significantly more than the other generations, the younger generation appeared to have the same basic mental architecture as the other generations. Generally consistent with these results is the finding in the Dutch study that, except for 13–16 year olds, the media combined for multitasking were similar for all age groups.

The new data from the 2014 sample support the data from the 2008 sample. Both show that these mental limitations are shared across generations, despite extensive multitasking attempts in the younger generations. We find that the generations have high levels of agreement on which tasks are combined for multitasking in a typical day. For instance, all of the generations listen to music while doing other tech and common tasks. All of the correlations between generations are correlated at r = .79 or higher and statistically significant (all ps < .001). And the correlations between generations on which task combinations are found to be difficult to perform are all very high, r = .85 or higher, and statistically significant (all ps < .001). One of the hardest-rated pairings is reading combined with playing video games. (Surprisingly, some participants reported that this is easy to do.)

One possible way out of this multitasking predicament is to train people to use “digital metacognition”—self-assessments of how one’s productivity is affected by digital devices along with learned skills for coping with the interfering effects of technology.

Our data from two studies show that multitasking with digital technology is becoming even more commonplace in people of all generations than it was just a few years ago. All of us should be concerned. Due to fundamental mental processing limitations, it’s likely that multitasking is negatively impacting important tasks like studying, reading, processing the news, and engaging in serious face-to-face conversations. Keep in mind, our most recent data was collected in 2014, before Alexa, Google Home, and robots like Jibo became part of many people’s daily lives. What will the levels of multitasking be in 2020 or 2026? What will the consequences be?

Though some might hope, it feels unlikely that technology and social media will go away or become less prevalent than they already are. One possible way out of this multitasking predicament is to train people to use “digital metacognition”—self-assessments of how one’s productivity is affected by digital devices along with learned skills for coping with the interfering effects of technology. Studies are beginning to show that digital metacognition is an important factor in understanding when a person will be affected by the negative aspects of using personal technology, such as with social media, with laptops, and with smartphones.

Knowing how to mitigate technology’s negative effects—knowing when to close Facebook and other distracting websites, or knowing when put the smartphone out of view on silent—might improve performance in attention-demanding tasks, like studying, when multitasking is deleterious. It might also make us better colleagues, friends, spouses, and parents.

Further Reading & Resources

  • Carrier, L. M., Cheever, N. A., Rosen, L. D., Benitez, S., & Chang, J. (2009). Multitasking across generations: Multitasking choices and difficulty ratings in three generations of Americans. Computers in Human Behavior25(2), 483-489. (Link)
  • Voorveld, H. A., & van der Goot, M. (2013). Age differences in media multitasking: A diary study. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media57(3), 392-408. (Link)
  • Dillner, L. (2017). Are people who think they can multitask deluding themselves? The Guardian. (Link)
  • Bergman, P. (2010).  How (and Why) to Stop Multitasking. Harvard Business Review. (Link)