The 3 Levels of MultiTasking (Part 1 of 2)

How To Be Better At Multi-Tasking

It’s hard to escape multitasking nowadays. It’s everywhere: at home, at work, at play… But, have you noticed how hard it is to do it? Here’s why it’s so difficult and what you can do about it.

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.

The First Level of Multitasking:

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.

The Second Level of Multitasking:

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.

We do not truly multitask. We switch our attention from one task to another more or less quickly and efficiently.

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.

“To do two things at once is to do neither”
– 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?

Think again.

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).

The Third Level of Multitasking:

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.


The 3 Levels of MultiTasking (Part 1 of 2) — 11 Comments

  1. Loved your article, Isabelle!

    I’ve read about multitasking before, about why it’s bad and almost everyone does it these days. But I’d never heard of the “real multi-tasking”, which you refer to as the level 3. Had no idea our brain can transform itself from a “single-core CPU” to a dual-core when it comes to extremes. Biology never ceases to amaze me!

    Your post made me remember my maths teacher from several years ago. We had 2 blackboards in our class, one very close to each other. He always attracted our attention at the beginning of an important lesson by starting to write on both blackboards, with both hands, simultaneously.

    I think this would be one of the best exercises to do in order to figure out whether you’re multi-tasking level 2 or 3. You can try it out on two pieces of paper, with your eyes closed. Try to write 2 different words on each paper.

    You’ll figure out immediately if your brain processes the 2 words at the same time, or if it takes each word by itself, in turns.

    Thanks for the awesome article, and I’m really looking forward to the second part!

    • Hi Andrew,

      Well, I’ve just tried your exercise with the left hand writing ‘Merry’ and the right hand ‘Christmas’ (I figured it could come handy with all these Christmas cards to write!). But I failed miserably. I have to think very hard of the 2 letters before attempting to write them simultanously and even then, I tend to delay one hand. The 2 rs together were easier though 🙂
      So, I’m definitely a type 2 multitasker!

      Your teacher writing with both hands must have been quite something to observe. Must have made you all keep quiet. A good trick for a teacher to possess!

      Thank you very much for your comment
      Best wishes

      • Another fun trick your brain plays on you is to use the same two-handed setup and write any word. Let your non-dominant hand (if you’re right-handed, then that’s your left) follow what your dominant hand is doing. It does this naturally. I haven’t found a practical use yet, but perhaps if I ever decide to write like Leonardo Da Vinci it will be most practical!

        • Hi Ray,
          You mean mirror writing? I’ve just tried it with my name: Isabelle. And I actually found it rather easy because my left hand is just following/mirroring the right one.
          That made me think of a study I read about driving and talking. If the talking you do is just repeating something you hear without altering it, it doesn’t affect your driving, or very little. That’s because you don’t have to think and formulate an answer, you’re just repeating what you’ve just heard.
          I guess it’s similar to writing the same word with both hands (same direction or mirror). You don’t have to think too much.
          Thanks for your comment!

  2. I used to think i was a good multi tasker but lately i’m finding like you said that i am dividing my time and not really multi tasking. My productivity actually goes down.

    So i’ve been experimenting with a couple of productivity methods to force myself to work on one task at a time. So far so good, I’m using the the pomodoro technique coupled with my a project management method called the Kanban methodology.
    Together these two really help me stay focused because I go for short bouts of intense focus on one thing at a time and also noticed i’m less stressed out.

    I still chew gum and walk at the same time. 🙂

    • Hi Annie,
      Wow, Kanban! That takes me back to my manufacturing/logistics days with the JIT methodology. I didn’t know it applied to a management methodology too. I’ll have to look into this. Have you got a link for this?
      As for chewing gum and walking… another proof that chewing does’nt require any thought process 😉
      Take care

  3. I call myself a multitasker. I do make mistakes, but I get things done so fast that I am able to fix my mistakes and still be ahead of the crowd. It is not always the best, but I chose it because it works for me. In session, I am focused and present.

    • Hi Jodi,
      Well done! It looks like you know your own limitations and accept the level of mistakes that comes with multitasking. You also know when to multitask and when to concentrate on an important task. All these things we’ll discuss in more details in part 2 of this article: How to be better at multitasking.

  4. Hi Mark,
    I also struggle with listening to several voices/sounds/music at once. The fact that my hearing is not very good (hereditary) doesn’t help. But now I know it’s not a problem with me… just that multitasking is very hard, I feel a lot better about it!

  5. I am also pretty bad at multi-tasking. I have a problem with multiple people talking at once. If the TV is on, I cannot focus on any other spoken words. Music is sometimes okay though. This might be due to all of those annoying commercials. They’re louder than the shows!

    • Hi Mark,

      I also struggle with listening to several voices/sounds/music at once. The fact that my hearing is not very good (hereditary) doesn’t help. But now I know it’s not a problem with me… just that multitasking is very hard, I feel a lot better about it!


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