Multi-tasking; it seems that people are going to have big debates about this topic until the end of time.

Recently, a book came out that claimed to “bust” the multi-tasking myth – as many authors have done over the decades. It’s nothing new. And the blog posts that spring up saying nothing but, “this is nothing new,” are nothing new either.

Let’s get a little perspective here. I think in most situations where some pocket of humanity is forming an opinion, we have a truth that is somewhere in the middle, and then two extreme, polarized opinions based on opposite sides of that less extreme reality. People cling to polarized opinions even when the truth has been proven right in front of their eyes.

Multi-tasking (or switch-tasking as the new buzz word goes) is usually a bad idea. No doubt about that, but the keyword is usually.

Because on the contrary, multi-tasking can be a useful way to make the most of time that would have otherwise been used inefficiently. It’s about making the most out of time, when it’s a good idea to do so. But how do you determine when it’s a good idea to multi-task?

Only Two Activities at Once

If you’re going to multi-task, then only attempt to tackle two activities at once. If 95% of the time you can only focus on one task effectively, that remaining 5% of the time, you can only handle two tasks at once without reducing the effectiveness of each task to a point where there’s little point in doing anything at all.

Imagine trying to cook, talk on the phone, and read a book. You could sure manage to cook and talk on the phone at the same time, but all three at once isn’t going to work. Our ability to perform tasks adequately hits its maximum at two, and that’s an upper maximum at that.

Of course, we can’t just multi-task any two activities, or I’d be writing two articles right now.

Levels of Concentration

There are two main types of task: those that require concentration, and those that can be done on autopilot.

As a rule, you can’t truly multi-task unless one of the two tasks at hand is one you do on autopilot, such as washing the dishes.

There are varying degrees of concentration requirement, too – listening to an audiobook while doing the dishes is easy because we have one task that’s easily done on autopilot with one task that requires concentration, but only concentration on incoming information. There’s no generation of outgoing information, so it’s easy and time efficient to multi-task.

When there’s a task that requires creating output, such as dictating a diary or brainstorming ideas into a tape recorder while doing the dishes, it needs to be fairly stream-of-consciousness or free-flowing. To work on something structured, high-level, or strategic requires total concentration.

The Best Reason to Say No to Multi-tasking

The best reason to say no to multi-tasking is not because it doesn’t work or it doesn’t exist. The true statement there is that it usually doesn’t exist.

The best reason to say no to multi-tasking is because it is a crutch. It is a gateway to low-resistance activities that allow us to procrastinate when we should be working on higher-yield activities that require more intensive thought.

It’s much easier to check email while reading RSS feeds than it is to write an article or plan a marketing campaign, so we resort to those easier activities that don’t require us to push past the resistance.

Multi-tasking does a great job of covering up the fact that we’re doing nothing, and we even fool ourselves with it. But unless you know that at the end of the day your current activities are going to have advanced your project or goals, you’re wasting your time out of fear of tackling those goals.

If this is you, avoid multi-tasking. Think of it as a scourge; it’s the closest thing to a gateway drug to procrastination to you.

One Question to Rule Them All

At the end of the day, it would be stupid to suggest you need to measure the concentration level of a task and add one tablespoon of autopilot activities to create a multi-tasking mix. It needs to be an easy question you ask yourself, to which I hope the answer is usually in the negative or you’re spending all your time on low-yield activities as we just discussed.

Understanding how multi-tasking works and more importantly, how it doesn’t work, is essential to answering this question honestly for yourself, though. But it’s a simple question:

Can I give both activities the attention they deserve and perform at an adequate level?

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