It’s almost in our nature, working on computers in a ‘computer age’, to multi-task throughout much of our day. How often do you only have one thing to do?
However, a common misconception may be that you, assuming you’re human, do not have the ability to perform multiple tasks simultaneously at all. Rather chop and change between tasks quickly.
“When you really study precisely what people’s brains are doing at any moment, there’s less concurrent processing than you might think,” Hal Pashler, a professor of psychology at the University of California at San Diego, explains.”
“The brain is more of a time-share operation,” he adds. “When fractions of a second matter, we’re better off not doing another task.”
If all we can master is the process of moving from one task to the next, what should we focus on? Could we prioritize multi-tasked tasks?
Consider the experiment that Jordan Grafman developed at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (N.I.N.D.S.) in Bethesda, Md. It’s a driving simulation in which you must avoid errant cars and jaywalkers, all while reciting sequences of numbers called out to you. Typically, your driving skills will grow more erratic as you pay attention to the numbers (although, frighteningly, you may not be aware of this). But when a virtual pedestrian dashes into the road, you’ll most likely abandon the recitation. That’s because in a driving simulation, avoiding killing people is the one challenge that outranks all others.
To switch tasks successfully, the brain must marshal the resources required to perform the new task while shutting off, or inhibiting, the demands of the previous one. At the same time, you must maintain the intention to break off at a certain point and switch to another activity. During such moments of mental juggling, a section of the brain called Brodmann’s Area 10 comes alive. (Area 10 is located in the fronto-polar prefrontal cortex — at the very front of the brain.)
Make schedules, not to-do lists.
When the American astronaut Jerry Linenger was working aboard the space station Mir, he wore three or four watches with alarms set to notify him when to switch tasks.
“The alarm does not have to carry any information, just be a reminder that something has to be done,” Paul Burgess, who researches multitasking at University College, London, says. Studies have shown that neurologically impaired patients have been helped at multitasking by nothing more than someone clapping their hands at random intervals. An interruption breaks your train of thought and initiates a recall of what else needs to be done.
It’s important, however, that the interruption itself not entail a task. For example, if the phone rings, don’t answer it. Dealing with whatever the call is about will distract your brain from what you’ve already set out to do. Instead, use the interruption to see if you’re on track with other activities. “Make calling others one of the things that needs to be scheduled,” Burgess advises. “And if you have to answer the call, don’t go straight back to what you were doing before the call arrived. Very deliberately check the time, and ask yourself if there was something else you should have been doing.”
By following such an approach, you can actually change your brain. Visualizing the circumstances in which you need to switch tasks will establish a mental pathway that will be available when you really need it. As functional brain scans suggest, just by thinking about what we need to do and when we need to do it, we can increase blood flow to Area 10, our multitasking hot spot.
Raj Dash at Performancing.com has a process that relates to this line of thinking for multi-task blogging.
- 1. Spend 15 minutes scoping out a new project as it comes in. Then leave it.
- 2. Come back to it later that day or in a few and spend a half hour doing some research. Then leave it and do something else.
- 3. Come back to it several days before it’s due and start working on it.
This line of thinking means, while you’re effectively managing multiple tasks, you’re focused on the task at hand. Raj’s method enables you to work on projects that take a longer amount of time, and keep focus while doing them in stages. Since we are able to create bookmark libraries of resources, we can call on that research when we want to work on the project.
How To Multitask – [NewYorkTimes]
How To Multi-Task For Productivity – [Performancing]