The Science of Multitasking: Should You Really Whistle While You Work?

Most days at work I have one earbud in my ear and one dangling below as I’m doing dishes, making compounds, or repairing instruments. Or I have both earbuds in and someone will inevitably come in and start talking to me. There’s always an immediate panic, trying to drop an earbud, pause the music/podcast and catch up to what they’re saying, since they never wait for you to pause what you’re listening to.

I am someone who needs distraction. While doing homework when I was younger I would always have music or re-runs of shows on. TV in the background is just added noise to keep my mind from wandering and my anxieties at bay. In response to finding out that I always have at least two things on the go at the same time, usually I hear “oh I can’t multi-task like that”. So am I multi-tasking? What is multi-tasking? And is it ruining our brains, or in a less-doomsday kind of way, is it negatively affecting how we work and learn?

A number of studies have been performed on students’ abilities to multi-task in classrooms and the effect that laptops (and now phones) can have on recall and retention, through their ability to distract a student from the task at hand. I found two research papers discussing the effect of laptops as a distraction in classes, the first published in 2003, and the second in 2013. Between the publishing of these two papers, the presence of laptops in undergraduate classes went from being occasionally present to ubiquitous. Regardless, both papers show the same results. Laptops, and in particular browsing material unrelated to the class’s subject on them, are likely to impact learning in the classroom. The first study, from 2003, showed when students were browsing unrelated material to their classes, or even related material, their retention of class information was hindered (Hembrooke & Gay, 2003). Sana et al. 2013 confirmed the same idea that distraction on a laptop hinders a students’ ability to learn and retain material, but this study also proved that students could be distracted by their peers; students who were not engaged in multi-tasking and attempting to actively learn information, were hindered by being in view of other students computers.

This does make sense; I will accept that browsing reddit while you are in a genetics lecture is probably not the best use of your time, and there is no doubt that this type of “multi-tasking” will inhibit a students’ learning potential. Here, students are trying to listen to important content (i.e. a genetics lecture), while reading or looking at unrelated material (i.e. a puppy on a skateboard). So, what happens if you flip it? While writing, reading, or studying, you listen to something completely unrelated. Well, this inversion seems to be a lot more likely to work.

While listening to podcasts or watching television have been linked to a drop in performance of a primary task (i.e. homework), listening to music has not; this may be due to its ability to better become “background noise” (David et al. 2015). Just like the hum of a microwave, or the rumble of a dryer, music can easily be on in the background without your brain focusing on the lyrics and meaning behind a song. David et al. 2015 also note that this ability to use music to block out sounds and become ambient noise may not be innate for everyone, but can be practiced and become a habit. In fact, listening to music and wearing headphones can become a buffer to block out other, more distracting noise (i.e. overhearing conversations at Starbucks or your roommate’s arguing).

“The difference between the effects of passive listening to music and active engagement in texting or social media highlights a major shift in the intrusion of media in everyday life. Traditional media, such as radio, television, or music, which can be ignored as background noise, are fundamentally different from human interactions via text messages or social media.” – David et al. 2015

One study found that whether you identify as “introverted” or “extroverted” would actually impact your ability to study while listening to pop music. Furnham & Bailey (1997) gave students the Eysenck Personality Test to determine if they were more “extroverted” or “introverted” and then gave the two groups tests (a memory test with immediate and delayed recall and a reading comprehension test). While neither group performed perfectly in either task with the presence of music, the performance of the introverted group was significantly hampered compared to the extroverts, particularly in the recall test. Furnham & Bailey (1997) also found that the extroverts in this study not only performed better than the introverts, but they were more likely to listen to music while working in their daily lives. It is possible that the extroverts did better because this habit of listening to music while working was already in place, and were it to become a habit for the introverts they could perform comparatively well. However, the fact that this division was already in place may suggest that these personality traits do affect the ability to multi-task. While Furnham & Bailey (1997) only played up-beat pop music for the participants, they do note that the tempo, beat, and type of music could influence information retention.

I found this study particularly interesting, since I find that I need music or podcasts on in the background to distract me from particularly medial tasks (i.e. doing dishes, folding laundry, reading research papers), so I took this Eysenck Personality Test (Try it yourself: to see if I fit into this hypothesis. And, apparently I do.

My Eysenck Personality Test Results: Proving that I am a good multi-tasker… right?

So, does this theory actually work? Is there a connection between more extroverted people being better at becoming less distracted by background noise?

As I am writing this article, an episode of Mad Men is on in the distance, and my partner is exercising. But, I understand that I may be an anomaly. I grew up in a household of people talking over top of each other, with the television on in the kitchen and music on in the living room. Multi-tasking was a way of life. If you only concentrated on one stimulant, you’d never be able to do anything. I didn’t realize that this was not how most people’s houses functioned until much later in life. Even now, the idea of being in a silent house is disquieting to me, so we almost always have an old sitcom or music on in the background. Occasionally people will come over and they have to ask to turn off the stimulants because they can’t pay attention to our conversations, or i’ll have to turn it off because my questions go consistently unanswered as our guest is distracted by an episode of 30 Rock. I do know that without instrumental music to help me write my mind will start to wander and I will stop working on the task at hand. Despite probably being slightly less productive because music or TV is on, since it keeps my focus, in the long term I do find that it’s actually beneficial for me.

So, I don’t know if multi-tasking is actually good for you, and some multi-tasking will definitely not help (browsing Facebook while studying is just asking for trouble), but it seems that some people are much better than others at concentrating through “distraction”. If you want to get better at concentrating with a lot of background noise, David et al. 2014 suggest that practice makes perfect, and you may be able to make it a habit. That being said, if multi-tasking works for you – go right ahead. Or, if you’re constantly forgetting the plot of the show you’re watching because you were browsing Instagram throughout the last episode, maybe it’s time to put your phone down and focus on the task at hand, properly binging that show on Netflix.


David, P., Kim, J., Brickman, J.S., Ran, W. & Curtis, C.M. 2015. Mobile phone distraction while studying. New Media & Society. 17(10): 1661 – 1679.

Furnham, A. & Bradley, A. 1997. Music While You Work: The Differential Distraction of Background Music on the Cognitive Test Performance of Introverts and Extraverts. Applied Cognitive Psychology. 11: 445 – 455.

Hembrooke, H. & Gay, G. J. 2003. The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments. Comput. High. Educ. 15: 46. doi:10.1007/BF02940852

Sana, F., Weston, T., Cepeda, N.J. 2013. Laptop multitasking hinders classroom learning for both users and nearby peers. Computers & Education. 62: 24 – 31.


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