I should be good at multitasking.
Women are supposed to be good at multitasking, right?
Guess what? I’m terrible at it!
If I’m in the process of writing an email and my son comes and asks me a question…I look at him…I vaguely remember hearing something…Homework, was it?
I say “OK” – and then I realize that I’ve agreed to him playing on his Xbox and doing his homework tomorrow. Not good!
I think my children know about my ‘disease’ and they always wait for me to be busy on the computer or cooking or on the phone, to come and make their requests knowing I will just nod gently and they’ll get away with asking whatever the hell they like.
So, why can’t I multitask?
I had to investigate this further and find out what was wrong with me.
I looked long and hard into it and I got more confused the harder I looked.
Then it all made sense: multitasking is confusing because people use the same word to describe different things: There are, in essence, 3 different levels of multitasking and each one is more or less challenging.
Several Subconscious Tasks at Once – Easy
The brain has no problem managing several subconscious tasks at once.
It does so every second: it manages our breathing, our digestion, the replacement of our dead cells, etc.
All of these physiological processes are managed by the autonomous nervous system part of your brain without any conscious effort.
Several Conscious Tasks Slotted In – Difficult
Where things get more complicated is when we want to do several conscious things at once:
- walking and talking
- driving and scolding the kids
- driving and texting
- watching tv and checking emails
- talking on the phone and cooking
- learning something and solving a problem
- playing the piano and talking
- attending a meeting and Instant Messaging
It’s a problem for the brain because both tasks require attention.
The brain just can’t give attention to each task at the same time.
Instead, what happens is a continuous to-ing and fro-ing of our attention between each task.
To explain this, let me take the example of computer processing.
A computer with a single processor (CPU) gives the impression it can handle several tasks at once (downloading an image, opening Word processor, updating a programme,…) when, in fact, it performs what is called ‘time-slicing’. It slots in little bits of each process. These processes are performed sequentially but because they are slotted in so rapidly you get the impression of simultaneity.
Well, the brain does the same thing: it processes in a sequential manner.
How quickly you switch between one task to another depends on how good you are at attention switching.
For some people, being distracted while deep in work, delays them tremendously (by up to 50%). They have to switch their attention to whatever is distracting them and then have to switch it back to their work again and re-gather their thoughts. Not only does it impact the time they complete their task in, but they’re also more likely to make mistakes.
Of course, some tasks require less brain power because they have become more automatic like walking and driving.
Yet, however easy the tasks seem, multitasking actually compromises the quality at which we can perform these tasks.
– Publilius Syrus, 1st Century BC
Take an example widely researched: driving and talking (just having a conversation with someone in your car, not even on a cellphone).
You would think it was a doddle?
Research has found that having a little chat while driving (which involves your having to think about and formulate answers) actually decreases your responsiveness and makes you more accident prone. Not only that but scientists have also discovered that driving impacts your very own language skills too (your ability to remember and retell a story).
Several Conscious Tasks at the Very Same Time – Extremely Difficult and Rare
This only happens when the reward for doing several tasks at once is perceived by the brain to be very high.
Scientists conducted an experiment where people had to complete 2 pairing tasks at once and were financially rewarded according to the number of right answers. The reward made the people highly motivated to achieve and something intriguing happened: the brain used both frontal lobes, one for each task – just like adding another CPU to a computer.
This true multitasking also takes place in soldiers during military combat. They have to be aware of their surroundings, manipulate their guns, advance or protect themselves, follow or give orders. All this more or less at the same time. The reward is potent: their very own survival.
How To Use This Information
Well, now you know that there are 3 levels.
Level 1: We can multitask in terms of doing things at the exact same time – we do it all the time at a physiological level.
Level 2: However good you think you are at multitasking, research shows us that you’re most likely not really multitasking in the way you think you are, you are dividing your attention. Note: this applies even if you think the tasks are really easy; dividing your attention between them will have an impact on how well you perform those tasks.
Level 3: This is extremely rare and difficult so shouldn’t be seen as a day-to-day solution.
So for now, knowing that it’s mostly level 2 that we can do something about, you can either stop trying to do too much at once (because the tasks, or you, or both will suffer) or do so more mindfully.
Then in part 2 we’re going to look more closely at level 2, how to be better at multitasking.