What do we mean by multitasking? – Exploring the need for methodological clarification in time use research

Susan Kenyon

Marriage, time use, Bangladesh, gender, leisure, work introduction

We can learn a lot about society by knowing how people spend their time during the typical day. However, inconsistency in the recording of time use, specifically, in how we record details of people’s participation in more than one activity at a time (“multitasking”), may be preventing full understanding of how people use their time in their everyday lives. It is not clear what “we” – as academics, survey designers and participants – mean by “multitasking”. This may be affecting the reliability and validity of recorded multitasking. In consequence, we may not know what we think we know about time use, with implications for “knowledge” in a wide range of academic disciplines and policy areas. This paper begins by presenting examples of popular use of the term “multitasking”, taken from a national (GB) survey, illustrating a diversity of understanding of the term amongst participants. Next, analysis of selected time use diaries highlights the impacts of this diversity in meaning for interparticipant and inter-survey consistency and therefore for reliability and validity. Finally, the paper raises a number of questions regarding the meaning of multitasking, with reference to its conceptualisation in selected academic papers. The paper identifies an important gap in the research literature, illustrating a need for methodological investigation in time use research, to enhance our understanding of the meaning of multitasking and therefore to enhance the comparability, reliability and validity of time use studies.