National Geographic News
Photo of mother and son in the Netherlands having dinner with father in the background.

Women may multitask better, but focusing on one task is still better for productivity.

Photograph by Roel Burgler, Hollandse Hoogte/Redux

Ashleigh N. DeLuca

National Geographic

Published November 1, 2013

For better or worse, multitasking is part of our lives, whether it's talking on the phone while driving (not a good idea), browsing the Internet while working (proceed at your own risk), or text messaging friends while in class (ditto).

Gijsbert Stoet, a psychologist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, wanted to know who were the better multitaskers—men or women? A study carried out by Stoet and his colleagues and recently published in the journal BMC Psychology hints that women prevail. We asked him to share his thoughts on the subject.

How do you define multitasking in your study?

Good question, because it is important to realize that there are different types of multitasking. We focused on the type that demands a rapid switch between multiple tasks. For example, imagine you are making a meal. You might be cutting vegetables and at the same time preparing an oven dish. You rapidly switch back and forth between the vegetables and the oven.

Another type of task switching we didn't focus on is performing two tasks simultaneously. For example, you play the piano and play different things with each hand. This is not what we focused on, though, because in daily life when we multitask, we typically switch rapidly between two tasks [as opposed to doing two simultaneously]—something humans find easier and more convenient to do.

At what point does multitasking affect productivity?

Once you start doing more than one task at one time, it affects productivity. In another study, we found that even with training, you never become as efficient as when you do one task at a time. We are just not good at multitasking. Multitasking is part of life; we have to do it. But to be really efficient, do one thing at a time. It's much better to focus half an hour on one task, then do half an hour on another task, than to switch back and forth.

In modern life we are forced to switch between tasks even though we don't want to because external events drive us to do so. For example, the phone rings, or your colleague comes in to chat, and you say, "Okay, I'll do this for five minutes, then go back to the other thing."

Why do you think women are better at multitasking?

It might go back to the division of labor between men and women. We were essentially adapted to surviving the dangers of a Stone Age environment. In that environment women did more than look after their children. Like men, they worked on tasks necessary for survival. They could not just focus on making clothes or finding food. At the same time, they had to keep an eye on their children; if not, the children would have been eaten by wild animals and the race would have died out. We are the result of that successful behavior.

Do you have any advice for multitaskers?

You are more efficient when you focus on one task. Whenever we make a switch, it takes time and we lose efficiency. If you are, say, writing an article, you should get rid of all distractions—Internet, email, phone.

That advice is not just for adults, but for children as well. If I ran a school, I would not allow children to have mobile phones. Mobile phones take away a child's ability to focus on one thing. Think about children doing their homework while texting and being on Facebook. We need to think about what this does to a younger generation. I think there is not enough research on the costs for society as a whole.

Will you continue your research on this topic?

Yes. I was surprised at the attention the study got, which tells me people are really interested. What we hope with this paper is to get the attention of the research community and say, "Look, we just don't know enough about this topic."

Follow Ashleigh N. DeLuca on Twitter.

Chudamani Akavaram
Chudamani Akavaram

Between men and women , it is women who carry out more varied responsibilities like,bearing children bringing them up , providing education, food and social environment and inculcating values and also some times earning lively hood for the family etc.

Stan Schamboeck
Stan Schamboeck

Studies as these just ingrain the social gender inequities that are rampant in our society. The need to label and to be better only in a verbal sense is just immature as a species and individual, no matter the gender.

We all have faults, and we all excel at different things, just because it is different than someone else does not make it better or worse, just different.  Does it really matter who is better at picking up a phone and stirring a pot at the same time, come on really.....

Melinda Maher
Melinda Maher

Had the study revealed that men are better multi-taskers, I doubt the title would have noted, "Men, of course."  Men and women have a complimentary array of strengths and weaknesses.  It is what propelled us forward in our development as a species.  Can we just accept that we are equal but different and stop vying for superiority?  

g g
g g

Does anybody else find this headline blatantly sexist?  Why "of course"?

C. Delozier
C. Delozier

I have a problem with that answer to the "why".  It reads like a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.  I have no problem with the study's conclusions, I just don't know that you can conclude anything about gender from this, especially when the conclusion is essentialism tied to casual evo-psych.  It is an interesting data point, as mentioned in the abstract.  But this speculation about modern differences in capability being rooted in the recent hunter-gatherer turning agriculturalist past, I take that with the largest grain of salt possible.

niccolo nolli
niccolo nolli

no girls i don't think so, I look at the phone during the lesson but i still alive

M Paulin
M Paulin

Dear Author,

I find myself not only grasping for words (that wont get my account closed) but also gasping for breath after reading this.

Never mind.  c kaf has nailed it pretty much.

Bridget Cameron
Bridget Cameron

I think men are socialised to be less emotional ( they are taught that their feelings are weak) and this suppression of their emotions, leads to highly reactive fight/flight reactions, and less communication between both hemispheres of their brains. When one closes down the emotions,  that effects the way in which one thinks, responds, and acts. Men's brains are wired differently to women's, with less communication between both hemispheres of the cerebrum and a smaller corpus collosum. 

I think this adaptation started along time ago, when were primates living in trees. Our closest relatives, the chimpanzee and gorilla show disparity between the sexes and their roles. Males, generally do less and eat more than the females.  So, maybe it is as simple as the difference between the x and y chromosome. Having two xx's is different to having one x and a y!

As we evolved and became hunter-gatherers, men's rules and women's rules and the division of labour continued.  Men's rules allowed them time to hunt, make tools and make decisions. Women's rules allowed them time to gather food (collect eggs, fish, fowl, dig for roots, collect fruits, look after the children, make clothes, make bags, water vessels, containers, look after the home, often to make the home also and make decisions related to the family) thus more work had been placed upon women from hunter-gatherer times, and this can be still seen in these societies today. These rules favoured giving men more time for recreation, maybe, because men used force, rape or violence to make it so, using their physical dominance to their advantage; as is still seen in domestic violence situations today. 

Focusing upon one task is not necessarily bound to result in a better result, as that is a matter of perspective related to what the task involves. Highly intensive tasks requiring huge concentration are of course best done in isolation, devoid of distractions.  

However, I think that the stimulation of early childhood is key to how we learn and accomplish. If a boy is encouraged to multitask eg. listen to music, play with blocks, learn a musical instrument, read lots of literature,  help out with domestics, express all feelings, be encouraged to follow his dream,  then he will grow up to be a better person, able to  multi-task,  be more emotionally balanced,  be a better communicator and there will be more communication going on between both hemispheres of his brain.   The same applies for a girl.  If she is encouraged in these areas and encouraged to do her best in what she does, then she will be grow up to be a better person too.  If a boy is encouraged to follow social norms, by being encouraged to be agressive, by not doing domestic tasks, nor expressing all of his feelings, then he will not develop to his full potential and will miss out on more meaningful aspects of life! The same applies with girls, when they are encouraged to be Princesses and subservient to men. I  think social norms often create dysfunction in both sexes.

Every family knows that men generally can only do one task at a time, while women multitask, because they generally have so much more to do!  And, that doesn't necessarily mean that she does them well, she may simply cope.  I'm sure many women would love to have the time to focus on one thing at a time. And, not all women are good at multi-tasking and are better focusing on one thing at a time, just as there are men who are excellent at multitasking. 

Yet, I feel as society changes and allows more flexibility and respect between the sexes, and social and sexual 'norms' change, men will become better multitaskers, and women will have more time to focus on doing one thing the best they can!  Then both sexes can enjoy more recreation, accomplish more and enjoy quality time together.

CJ Parks
CJ Parks

Conclusive proof that a selected gender can perform better than another gender under an arbitrary metric!  Confusing meaningless noise for SCIENCE!!! :-D

tao observer
tao observer

The man in the photo is holding a beer and walking at the same time, appearing to be on his way to do an important thing (like watch Monday Night Football), while the woman is just sitting there watching the toddler - she is not even holding a utensil. Not sure if the photo supports the story.

Jean B.
Jean B.

Don't know as one could come to an accurate answer, but I wonder why many people are drawn to multi-tasking and why some not only are not good at it, they detest it and the few who are good at it, but detest it all the same. I guess one could get people's impressions.  Could one ever get at the real reason?

C. Delozier
C. Delozier

@g g Yes, treating this as a foregone conclusion, however jovially it was meant, is problematic for both men and women.  The byline trivializes this supposed capacity for multitasking as well, which means that the only areas where it will matter are in categories of home-ec...

You'd think, for someone who studied gender, Ashleigh DeLuca would have put a bit more effort in not perpetuating the stereotypes of slovenly single-track-minded men and doting housewife women.


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