Mastering Your Multitasking

It’s been amply demonstrated that the brain can’t multitask its attention. Because working memory is so small, we can’t process two streams of thought at the same time. Our brains switch back and forth between the two tasks and when we do this, we lose time, energy, accuracy, and quality. As I referred to it on my Psychology Today blog, when you’re multitasking you’re “Mining Your Inner Moron.”

I demonstrate this phenomenon in my programs using the classic Stroop color-word test, asking people to look at various color words (red, blue, green) and to yell out the color of the letters rather than read the words (see an example here). It turns out that this is really hard to do. Another thing you can try is to watch the news on CNN. You’ll notice that if you’re following what the news anchor says, every so often your eye is caught by the news crawl below. Often you’ve missed the beginning so it’s a late word in a sentence (“fired” or “died” perhaps) that catches your eye.  If you have a DVR, you can back up to see who that unfortunate person was. And then, of course, while you’re processing the crawl, you’re not processing what the anchor is saying. So although your senses may be exposed to two streams of words at the same time, you’re missing parts of each message.

But what if one task is verbal and the other isn’t? It’s tempting to think that there shouldn’t be any interference. However, my first memory of a multitasking fail gives the lie to that notion. As I describe in Conquer CyberOverload,

My first experience with the perils of multitasking came in high school, when I attempted to do two things at once that I thought should not conflict. I wanted to practice a poem that I had memorized for school, and I had to set my mother’s hair in rollers. Since I had the poem down pat and I had set my mother’s hair many times before, I thought I’d save time by practicing the poem out-loud while I put the rollers in my mother’s hair. This turned out to be totally impossible: The moment I’d reach for a roller, I’d completely lose those well-memorized words; and if I concentrated on the words, I couldn’t make any progress on her hair. I finally had to give up in frustration and do the two tasks separately.

Any two tasks you try to do at the same time will conflict at some level if you’re using cognitive capacity on each one. Sure, you can walk and chew gum at the same time, but chewing gum is automatic and you don’t have to think about it at all. You can walk and talk at the same time, too. You can even take a walk and have an intense and fruitful discussion of some work-related problem as you go. But this only works well when your walking doesn’t involve any decision-making. If you suddenly find yourselves lost and need to figure out which way to turn, that conversation has to take a back-seat for a few minutes while you decide on a new route. Then, you can resume your discussion.

So-called “mindless” tasks will interfere less than cognitively demanding ones. But some tasks that seem mindless take more cognitive effort than you might think.

Here are some suggestions for mastering mulititasking

1. Notice what happens the next time you try two things at once, even when one activity is “mindless.”
2. Try single-tasking two things that you usually multitask. You’ll be surprised how much time you save when you add up the time for the two tasks separately.
3.  If one of your two tasks is for entertainment (watching a game or movie while catching up on work), notice how much less you enjoy the entertainment as well as how much harder it is to do good work.
4. Try my written multitasking exercise to see how your efficiency, accuracy, and effort are affected.

Then, take the results to heart. And let me know what happens.

2 Responses to Mastering Your Multitasking
  1. Piggs Mayfly
    December 21, 2012 | 8:22 pm

    Imagine judging your violin abilities by a single attempt with no training. As musicians will tell you, they multitask all the time. They practice until they no longer need to direct their hands to note positions etc, all the time allowing them to interpret, improvise, sing (another instrument) or just perve on the audience. As for the human body, I’m glad I’m able to beat my heart and breath while untold numbers of other processes are happening.