Most of us think we’re pretty good multitaskers. Listening in on a conference call, writing up a report, eating lunch – check, check check. Three tasks all completed at one go.
Maybe all three tasks were completed, but the questions are, were they all completed well? And were they all completed at the same time?
How well done were the tasks?
Let’s start with the first question. Do you think the person who was eating, writing and listening really tasted their lunch? What about the conference call, do you think they could give a comprehensive answer regarding who spoke and what they said? And that report they were writing, do you think it was as accurate and well thought out as if it was the only thing they were paying attention to? The answer to all three questions is, probably not.
Are we actually doing several things at once?
Even though humans have been walking, talking and picking berries ever since we started hunting and gathering, the term multitasking didn’t actually come into existence until computers came along, to describe how a microprocessor seems to be able to do a number of things at the same time. The thing is, a single processor isn’t actually doing multiple things at the same time. It’s switching from one thing to another, really fast so it just seems like many things are being accomplished at once.
Which brings us to the answer to the second question. Were all the tasks being completed at the same time? No not really. According a CNN video by doctor Sanjay Gupta, Your brain on multitasking, when we think we’re multitasking, doing two (or more) things at once, what we’re actually doing is diverting attention from one part of our brain to another part of our brain. So it’s more a matter of stopping with task A, switching to task B, stopping with task B and switching back to task A. And during all that switching, neither task is getting 100% attention or focus, precisely because of all that switching.
Imagine a conductor on a train hitting a fork. The train can’t physically run on both tracks at once, it has to choose one or the other. With lots and lots of forks in the track the conductor can switch tracks as often as he or she chooses, but every time the train switches it loses momentum on the track it’s currently on. To pick up any speed and get to any destination quickly and efficiently it’s better to stick to one track at a time.
The complexity of the task
If two people are walking and talking together, they are multitasking. But because walking is such an automatic thing it ends up being done on autopilot, while focused attention is given to the conversation. It is possible to successfully multitask when one of the tasks doesn’t require any degree of attention, but if the tasks are dissimilar and take up different parts of the brain, like writing and listening, then the way to accomplish either task to the best of your ability is to take on each one individually.
So instead of trying to do a bunch of complicated things at once, finish them one at a time and save multitasking for lunch with a friend who doesn’t mind how engaged you are with your phone.
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