About Multitasking -> Overview

What is multitasking? Research typically defines it as a time-pressured situation in which a person must carryout multiple tasks, each of which has a separate goal. For example, cooking dinner might require frying a hamburger, boiling potatoes, and chopping condiments, among other tasks. The end goal in frying a hamburger is different than the goal of boiling potatoes and there is a certain time pressure in cooking because food being prepared may be undercooked or burned.

Multitasking work environments (e.g., emergency medicine, piloting, and restaurant food preparation) typically require that tasks be interleaved because of interruptions and the inability to complete one task before starting another. It is a common misperception that multitasking, by definition, is the simultaneous completion of multiple tasks. In fact, our limited-capacity of attention prohibits simultaneous execution of different tasks that have different goals. Instead, we tend to change our attention from one task (e.g., cooking the hamburger) to attend to another (e.g., checking the potatoes) or another (e.g., chopping onions). We still "multitask" when we are cooking even though we are not simultaneously completing each task.

Hence, multitasking may be simply and usefully defined as the interleaving of the execution and completion of multiple tasks under a time-pressured situation.

Email: susan.beers@csuci.edu