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Multitasking makes us feel good. Productive? Not so much

It's been shown over and over again that multitasking actually hurts our performance. Divide your attention between several things and you likely won't be able to do a single one of them well. So why do we do it? Because it makes us feel good, according to a new study published online in the Journal of Communication.

"There's this myth among some people that multitasking makes them more productive," Zheng Wang, lead author of the study and assistant professor of communication at Ohio State University, said in a release. "But they seem to be misperceiving the positive feelings they get from multitasking. They are not being more productive – they just feel more emotionally satisfied from their work."

Even though multiple laboratory studies have shown that multitasking worsens performance, media multitasking is still becoming increasingly popular. Dr. Wang and colleagues set out to find out why.

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They recruited 32 college students who reported their activities three times a day for four weeks. Those reports included what type of media they were using (television, print, computer, radio etc.) as well as how they used it, such as whether they had their computers on to browse the Web or check out friends' Facebook pages. They also reported their motivations for each activity: Was it for work or fun? Out of habit or for social reasons?

Researchers found that students were more likely to multitask when they felt an increase in cognitive needs, which could include studying or work, habitual needs or both. In other words, when a test was coming up, students could be counted on to multitask.

Interestingly, however, that multitasking failed to satisfy the students' cognitive needs. But even though the students didn't say it helped get them to their intended goals, all that multitasking did satisfy their emotional needs, with students reporting that it was fun or relaxing.

The example raised by Dr. Wang is of students who watch TV while reading a book. They didn't feel as if they achieved their cognitive goals as well as students who just read a book, but they felt more emotionally satisfied.

"They felt satisfied not because they were effective at studying, but because the addition of TV made the studying entertaining. The combination of activities accounts for the good feelings obtained," Dr. Wang said.

Do you feel you're effective at multitasking, or do you try to focus on one task at a time?

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About the Author

Dave McGinn writes about fitness trends for the Life section and also reports for Globe Arts. Prior to joining the Globe, he was a freelance journalist, covering topics from trying to eat Michael Phelps' diet to why the Joker is the best villain in comics history. He's working on improving his 10k time. More

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