Switchtasking versus multitasking. What is the difference?

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When I introduced the term switchtasking in my book, The Myth of Multitasking: How ‘Doing It All’ Gets Nothing Done, in August 2008 (later re-released in 2021) a lot of people wanted to know what it meant. Increasingly I saw classes in high school and college make assignments to their students to learn about the ills of multitasking. And occasionally they gave the assignment to find out the difference between switchtasking and multitasking.

I even saw a question posted on a popular question and answer online forum asking what is the difference between switchtasking and multitasking. The generally accepted answer was incorrect: it said that switchtasking is when you stop and switch your attention back and forth whereas multitasking is when you are trying to do multiple things at the same time.

The correct answer is that they are the same—there is no difference. Switchtasking is the word I created to describe what is really taking place when people attempt to multitask. Switchtasking is a negative thing, in fact in my book I redefined multitasking into two different terms, switchtasking and backtasking.

Backtasking—short for “background tasking”—is when something mindless or mundane occurs in the background such as, starting a load of laundry while you answer Email. Since the laundry doesn’t require your attention and is occurring in the background, this is a background task. Backtasking can be very efficient.

But when most people try to multitask what they are really doing is switchtasking, switching back and forth rapidly between two or more tasks. Whenever someone switchtasks, they are piling up large amounts of switching cost. Switching cost is the transition time of mental effort and energy that it takes to move from one task to the other.

Whenever someone attempts to multitask or, switchtask they are actually being less efficient and getting less done. The point is this, whenever you do one thing at a time —or single task—you are going to be more effective than when you try to switchtask—or multitask.

Learn what switchtasking costs you with this exercise:

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