Photo credit: Pedro Moura Pinheiro (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

According to Nick Bilton, lead technology reporter of the New York Times, the common held belief that multitasking is impossible is “media hype”, noting that the ability to multitask “depends on what the tasks are”. All experienced drivers are able to drive and talk at the same time. Most mothers are able to talk, cook and clean at the same time, but the question remains: Are they actually multitasking?

Broadman’s Area 10

Many people believe that multitasking is the only way they cope in our world of task and information overload but the reality is that the brain is incapable of actually focusing on two things at the same time. A frontal part of the brain called Broadman’s Area 10 is supposedly responsible for the brain switching from task to task, and whereas we may think we are multitasking we are actually getting good at switching from task to task more seamlessly.

The current generation have seemingly started to use this part of the brain better than the previous generation, as switching from homework to Facebook, to using Skype on their phone are normal daily activities. Bilton says that our brains are adapting, not evolving but adapting to the increased stimulation that modern life brings. Video games may also be responsible for the development of multitasking capability in terms of attention, hand eye coordination and visual and spatial problem solving.

What is Possible?

So what about the people who say it is possible to watch television, send emails, tweet and have a conversation with their partner all at the same time? Well, these people are simply task-switching.

And what about those who can drive and talk on the phone, or dance and sing or rub their bellies and pat their heads? In these examples one of the two tasks has become somewhat automated. Driving or riding a bicycle are perfect examples of how the brain works in the background. We no longer have to focus on what we are doing to arrive home safely. Although if something out of the ordinary happens, our brain must focus back on the driving to ensure all is well.

I recently saw Bilton speak at the Dublin Web Summit and at least 70% of the audience tapped away at their laptops, iPads or smartphones while he spoke. Some were note-taking, some were checking out his book or his website, and others were busy tweeting, blogging or communicating online in some form or another. I’m sure most attendees thought they were listening to the talk, but I believe that their attention was split and not all would remember what was said. They inevitably had to experience the “zone in” and “zone out” of task-switching to some degree.

What is Multitasking?

The term “multitasking” originated in the computer engineering industry. It was used to explain how a microprocessor can seem to process several tasks simultaneously. But in order for a single core processor to process tasks it actually has to “time share” the processor. Only one task can be processed at a time, but these tasks are rotated many times a second. With a multi-core processor, each core can perform a separate task simultaneously.

So the idea that we can work on more than one thing at once is actually a fallacy. In keeping with the original meaning of multitasking, we now know that the multiple tasks that we are attending to are actually sharing brain time. And there is always a price to be paid when switching tasks.

Some research has shown multitasking to reduce productivity by 40%, but like everything in life it depends on what tasks — and the importance of full focus while doing it.

Conclusion

“To be everywhere is to be nowhere” –  Seneca, Spanish-born Roman Statesman and philosopher

If the tasks you are doing are relatively unimportant or mundane and don’t require undivided attention to complete, multitasking can help to get more done. But if you have an important job or one that requires particular attention or care, the best solution is to stay focused on it (and, at the very least, turn off your phone).

After all, it is necessary to be actually where you are in order to achieve the best results.

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