The multitasking brain is a myth. Well, not a myth entirely but it is a true myth that your brain can multitask more than one intellectual task at a time.
Let me first explain my view on intellectual tasks and then get back to my point. Any task that needs more than 1% of your focus is what I define as an intellectual task. Breathing, walking and blinking your eyes are all tasks that you do without any effort or thought. Those are not intellectual tasks.
Writing, talking, listening, calculating and so on are however intellectual tasks that needs everywhere from 1 to 100% of your focus.
There’s been a lot of talk about the multitasking professional and the multitasking brain but from what I’ve seen and experienced myself there is no such thing, or individual. The brain can multitask non-intellectual tasks with intellectual tasks really good. Try breathing and writing at the same time and you will notice that it goes without any effort. But listening and writing at the same time is not something that you will be able to multitask. I know that you spontaneously disagree but, no it’s not!
Let me challenge you
Try writing a poem, or even copying a pre written poem, and listening to a description of a problem you need to make a decision on. While you think you are multitasking doing these things at the same time what you are actually doing is task switching. You focus will switch, very fast, between the two tasks. You will write a word, listen to a phrase, write a word, listen to another phrase but you will not be able to do them simultaneously.
When you compare the speed you are doing both tasks in, and the quality of the outcome, compared to doing them one at a time you will find that the outcome of your work is less than 50%, in speed or quality, when you are task switching compared to when you perform the tasks one at a time.
You will also most likely have to ask the person that is explaining the situation for you to repeat it in order for your to make a decision. If you don’t you will most probably have missed a few details that could be important for your decision.
A few rules of thumb to help you on your way
The multitasking behavior is something fairly new at the work place and it’s most often people who are stressed and people who feel that they are not in control of the situation who starts doing this.
If your are stressed and have a lot of things to do this behavior is counterproductive, as you’ve probably realized now, and will only worsen or prolong your stressed and “out of control” situation.
If you slow down and start focusing on one task at a time you will end up getting more things done by the end of the day. That’s easier said than done for most of us, me included, so I’ve put together a small list with a few rules of thumb to keep you “on the wagon”. Every time you feel that your situation is getting out of control you should read these rules or recite them. I recite them several times a day to keep me from falling off the wagon.
- You are not a multitasking computer, and no one expects you to be.
If someone comes to your desk at the same time as your are busy with something and wants your attention in a matter you should stop them directly. Simply tell them that you are not able to multitask and that you need to finish what you are working on. No one will blame you for keeping them waiting for a couple of seconds if you are writing a mail and want to finish it. If your task will take longer than that ask them if you can come over to them when you are finished or at a later time. Write it down as a task in your to-do list and then finish your work.
If your colleague starts arguing that you could do both simply tell them “I’m not a multitasking computer I’m afraid.”. That will probably give them a laugh but they will get the point.
- Get your tasks in line, scheduled and written down
In order for your brain to fully be able to work with just one task you need to get the other 1000 out of your head. The simplest way of getting them out of your head is to write them down in a to-do list. When this is done your brain will let them go because you know that they won’t be forgotten. Everything you need to do during a day should either be a to-do or scheduled in your calendar. Tasks and other things on your to-do list should be scheduled for when you will have to do them. When you’ve done this you have paved the way for….
- …If you want to go faster, slow down and focus.
When you only have the current task in mind your capacity for that task will be much greater than when you multitask or have everything hanging over you. You have now made it possible for yourself to work more focused, at a comfortable rate and still complete more things and tasks at the end of the day. I’m not going to tell you that this is the Nirvana of working but it gives you a sense of harmony in your work which makes your brain think that you aren’t going that fast. And when your brain thinks you aren’t going that fast it starts to increase the pace itself. It’s like hitting a tennis ball against a wall. At first you go slow and when you fell in control you will automatically start going faster. If you’ve done this you know the out of body feeling of hitting that tennis ball really fast against the wall. It’s the feeling of control and satisfaction.
- Finish what you have started
It pretty much goes without saying but it’s amazing how fast you start working on new tasks before you’ve finished the previous of you don’t keep telling this to yourself. The main key to “every task one at a time” is: Finish what you have started!
Try this for a couple of days and I know that you will increase your speed and quality of work.
Let me know the result by commenting on this post!