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Multi-tasking Isn’t Always a Bad Idea

Multi-tasking Isn’t Always a Bad Idea

    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

    Mastering the Art of Prioritization The Importance of Scheduling Downtime How to Make Decisions Under Pressure 11 Free Mind Mapping Applications & Web Services How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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