The science behind multitasking
Got a zillion things to do today? Think you’re a pro at getting it all done because, hey, you’re a multi-tasker? Think you can effortlessly do All The Things because you’re special? Got some news for you (and us, because we think we’re special). You’re not special. Unless you have a special talent for doing a lot of things not very well. Because that’s exactly what multitasking is.
“Multitasking is the special talent of doing a lot of things not very well.”
Doing All The Things
We’ve all been there. We think we can handle making dinner (mac’n’cheese again, huh?) while emailing Aunty Sarah in Nowhereville, Alabama, while helping little Shania with her math homework while inventing a solar energy device . But, instead, we burn the dinner, get cheese sauce stuck under the G on the keyboard, make little Shania stomp off shouting “I hate you!” and, well, the solar energy device is lost to society forever.
Multitasking doesn’t work. It’s just science.
When you’re multitasking, you may think that you’re focussing on lots of different things at the same time, but science says you’re not. Science says that while you’re multitasking your brain is switching attention between tasks very quickly. Basically, your brain is toggling between tasks. And because the tasks are competing with each other for brain space, each time it switches, you lose time, yes, but you also lose the ability to perform any of the tasks well.
We just can’t multitask as well as we think we can. And, as much as we think we are getting all the things done, multitasking decreases our ability to perform well. For most of us, our attention is limited. When we start juggling too many things at once, we can’t focus on anything well, and it can actually impair our cognitive abilities.
Multitasking can kill
None of us are stupid enough to take a selfie while we’re driving. But there’s nothing wrong with a harmless phone call, right? Well, just a few years ago, it was perfectly acceptable to be driving on the highway and get the urge to chat to your bestie. So out comes the cell phone for a good old natter. Now, research has established that we just can’t multitask while driving without reducing our ability to control our vehicle. So, now many countries including the US have made laws against “distracted driving”, and rightly so. Some of these laws include any cell phone use, including hands-free, by young drivers.
So, should we multitask?
If you’re in charge of a vehicle or a nuclear power plant, then, no, you shouldn’t multitask.
But sometimes we can’t avoid multitasking, but that doesn’t always mean we’ll do a terrible job of it. If we’re aware of the limitations of multitasking, then we can multitask when we know that the result doesn’t have to be perfect. Sometimes good enough is good enough.
Try single tasking
Single Tasking (is this a word? It is now) is straightforward. Instead of multitasking, try separating your tasks and performing them one at a time. It’s not rocket science but it is brain science. You’ll find that when you pay attention to a single task, your brain can focus beautifully, and you’ll perform the task much better. If you’re writing an essay while talking to your friend, make a time to talk to them when you’re finished your essay. If you focus on your essay exclusively, your brain doesn’t have competing tasks begging for attention, so it can get deep into the subject and come up with a real quality piece rather than something half-assed. And then reward yourself with some quality time with your best bud.
What’s not to love about single tasking?
Got stories about when multitasking hasn’t worked for you? Let us know.