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We’ve Been Wrong About Multitasking All Along

We’ve Been Wrong About Multitasking All Along

Picture this scene: It’s 30 minutes into my workday and I’ve already ticked three things off my To Do list. I’ve got something done about finances, finalized a networking meeting, polished a pitch, and am ready to do some serious writing. Then all of a sudden, my internet connection is down. Whoa! How can anyone get anything done without the internet? After some minutes of panic and ranting, I begin to do what I can, offline. And then, eventually, the internet’s absence reveals some beliefs I had wrong about multitasking because—surprise!—work flows smoothly until the end of a most productive day, despite my not being able to check and respond to messages or quickly research points.

While the ability to work on simultaneous tasks has its merits, knowing where we got it wrong about multitasking gives us control over the work process. Here are 10 things we’ve had wrong about multitasking:

1. It’s not really multitasking.

Multitasking is actually switching between tasks. Studies by psychologist René Marois at Vanderbilt University revealed that when humans attempt to do two tasks at once, execution of the first task leads to a delay in the second task because a bottleneck occurs in the brain’s information processing area. Simply put, the brain cannot effectively do two things at once.

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2. Not all work can be done with multitasking.

Multitasking can only be done when one task is automatic, such as showering or walking. In The Multitasking Mind, authors Dario Salvucci and Niels Taatgen cite reading while mixing a bowl of ingredients and pulling weeds in the garden while listening to the radio as examples of effortless multitasking. Difficulties come up when tasks involve the same brain processing or body part, such as typing and using a mouse (both require the right hand) or driving and scanning a navigation device (both require vision). The most intense conflict is multitasking in the head, where cognitive and linguistic brain processes create interference, such as reading while having a conversation.

3. Not everyone can multitask.

Some people are better at multitasking than others, but they are not necessarily those who multitask a lot. “In fact, the more likely they are to do it, the more likely they are to be bad at it.” This is what Dr. David Sanbonmatsu and Dr. David Strayer, psychology professors at the University of Utah, found in a research study. The study suggests that  people multitask not because they have the ability, but “because they are less able to block out distractions and focus on a singular task.”

4. Multitasking does not save time.

Time-saving is another major thing I got wrong about multitasking. Switching from one task to another or doing two or more tasks in rapid succession uses up seconds. Dr. Joshua Rubinstein, Dr. Jeffrey Evans and Dr. David Meyer conducted experiments in which young adults switched between tasks like solving math problems or classifying geometric objects. They found that multitasking actually takes as much as 40% of productive time.

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5. Multitasking is not efficient.

The study of Rubinstein, Evans, and Meyer additionally showed that multitasking involves more errors that occur from cognitive load in the brain. The brain needs to not only adjust to the second task but also to remember where it stopped in the original task. If counting is interrupted by a second task, you need to reorient and remember where you stopped counting in order to proceed with an accurate count. Errors also occur with activities that involve critical thinking.

6. Multitasking can be dangerous.

Air traffic controllers work with heightened stress levels caused by the strenuous effort required to focus on their tasks. They are aware of the dangerous consequences of one mistake. Near-fatal results can also take place in the medical field, as in the case of a 56-year-old male dementia patient. At a visit during hospital rounds, his attending physician instructed the resident to discontinue his anticoagulation medication. The hospital’s computerized provider order entry system (CPOE) allowed for this to be done in real time. The resident began to enter the order into her smartphone but received a text message from a friend about a party, which she responded to. The physician and resident then continued on their rounds. The resident didn’t complete the entry to discontinue the medication resulting in an emergency open-heart surgery, which the patient, fortunately, survived.

7. A multitasking boss sends the wrong signal.

In her book, The Silent Language of Leaders: How Body Language Can Help—or Hurt—How You Lead, Carol Kinsey Goman talks about leaders’ non-verbal messages. An example of this is a boss who verbally tells her team they are important and are always welcome in her office. Yet, when a team member seeks her out, this boss answers questions while writing an email or shuffling papers and does not make eye contact. Result: the team feel they don’t even get half of this leader’s attention.

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8. Multitasking gets in the way of meetings.

You’d think with all the devices available, meetings would cover more in less time. Attendees should be able to note down their reporting topics and action items. We got that wrong about multitasking too. What usually happens is people lose track of the discussion because they are tweaking their reports or noting down action items. In a productive meeting, the attendees are also mentally present and actively engaged in the discussion. One assigned person takes down the meeting minutes for distribution later.

9. Multitasking dulls memory and the ability to organize.

What we often believe to be memory problems are actually attention problems. You cannot remember later what you do not pay attention to now. Child and adult psychiatrist, Dr. Edward Hallowell describes attention deficit trait (ADT) as a response to our hyperkinetic environment. When an individual is dealing with more inputs than they possibly can, their brain circuits get overloaded. They are unable to stay organized, set priorities, or manage time.

10. Multitasking detracts from relationships.

We justify work multitasking as a means to have more time for our relationships. Well, we got that wrong about multitasking too. As more mobile apps become available for work, chores, and errands, the role of multitasking with mobile phones has reached villainous status. No doubt you’ve experienced the frustration of having a conversation with a partner or a friend that is interrupted by text messages, emails, or actual phone calls. A study by the University of Essex showed the mere presence of a mobile phone—even when not in use—during personal conversations becomes a barrier to closeness, trust, and empathy.

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Why what we got wrong about multitasking is good news.

It’s okay not to multitask. Focusing on one task allows you to finish it sooner and begin the next task. You can also better focus on important face-to-face encounters.

When you need to multitask, you can do it well. Those who do not usually multitask make the best multitaskers, according to the Strayer and Sanbonmatsu study.

You can choose effective task pairings and devices. Have double PC monitors to facilitate research, use foot pedals when transcribing, and listen to select audiobooks while driving.

Oh, and by all means, whistle while you work!

Featured photo credit: Arthur Gebuys via flickr.com

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Last Updated on September 20, 2018

8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More

8 Ways to Train Your Brain to Learn Faster and Remember More

You go to the gym to train your muscles. You run outside or go for hikes to train your endurance. Or, maybe you do neither of those, but still wish you exercised more.

Well, here is how to train one of the most important parts of your body: your brain.

When you train your brain, you will:

  • Avoid embarrassing situations. You remember his face, but what was his name?
  • Be a faster learner in all sorts of different skills. No problem for you to pick up a new language or new management skill.
  • Avoid diseases that hit as you get older. Alzheimer’s will not be affecting you.

So how to train your brain and improve your cognitive skills?

1. Work your memory

Twyla Tharp, a NYC-based renowned choreographer has come up with the following memory workout:

When she watches one of her performances, she tries to remember the first twelve to fourteen corrections she wants to discuss with her cast without writing them down.

If you think this is anything less than a feat, then think again. In her book The Creative Habit she says that most people cannot remember more than three.

The practice of both remembering events or things and then discussing them with others has actually been supported by brain fitness studies.

Memory activities that engage all levels of brain operation—receiving, remembering and thinking—help to improve the function of the brain.

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Now, you may not have dancers to correct, but you may be required to give feedback on a presentation, or your friends may ask you what interesting things you saw at the museum. These are great opportunities to practically train your brain by flexing your memory muscles.

What is the simplest way to help yourself remember what you see? Repetition.

For example, say you just met someone new:

“Hi, my name is George”

Don’t just respond with, “Nice to meet you”. Instead, say, “Nice to meet you George.”

Got it? Good.

2. Do something different repeatedly

By actually doing something new over and over again, your brain wires new pathways that help you do this new thing better and faster.

Think back to when you were three years old. You surely were strong enough to hold a knife and a fork just fine. Yet, when you were eating all by yourself, you were creating a mess.

It was not a matter of strength, you see. It was a matter of cultivating more and better neural pathways that would help you eat by yourself just like an adult does.

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And guess what? With enough repetition you made that happen!

But how does this apply to your life right now?

Say you are a procrastinator. The more you don’t procrastinate, the more you teach your brain not to wait for the last minute to make things happen.

Now, you might be thinking “Duh, if only not procrastinating could be that easy!”

Well, it can be. By doing something really small, that you wouldn’t normally do, but is in the direction of getting that task done, you will start creating those new precious neural pathways.

So if you have been postponing organizing your desk, just take one paper and put in its right place. Or, you can go even smaller. Look at one piece of paper and decide where to put it: Trash? Right cabinet? Another room? Give it to someone?

You don’t actually need to clean up that paper; you only need to decide what you need to do with it.

That’s how small you can start. And yet, those neural pathways are still being built. Gradually, you will transform yourself from a procrastinator to an in-the-moment action taker.

3. Learn something new

It might sound obvious, but the more you use your brain, the better its going to perform for you.

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For example, learning a new instrument improves your skill of translating something you see (sheet music) to something you actually do (playing the instrument).

Learning a new language exposes your brain to a different way of thinking, a different way of expressing yourself.

You can even literally take it a step further, and learn how to dance. Studies indicate that learning to dance helps seniors avoid Alzheimer’s. Not bad, huh?

4. Follow a brain training program

The Internet world can help you improve your brain function while lazily sitting on your couch. A clinically proven program like BrainHQ can help you improve your memory, or think faster, by just following their brain training exercises.

5. Work your body

You knew this one was coming didn’t you? Yes indeed, exercise does not just work your body; it also improves the fitness of your brain.

Even briefly exercising for 20 minutes facilitates information processing and memory functions. But it’s not just that–exercise actually helps your brain create those new neural connections faster. You will learn faster, your alertness level will increase, and you get all that by moving your body.

Now, if you are not already a regular exerciser, and already feel guilty that you are not helping your brain by exercising more, try a brain training exercise program like Exercise Bliss.

Remember, just like we discussed in #2, by training your brain to do something new repeatedly, you are actually changing yourself permanently.

6. Spend time with your loved ones

If you want optimal cognitive abilities, then you’ve got to have meaningful relationships in your life.  Talking with others and engaging with your loved ones helps you think more clearly, and it can also lift your mood.

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If you are an extrovert, this holds even more weight for you. At a class at Stanford University, I learned that extroverts actually use talking to other people as a way to understand and process their own thoughts.

I remember that the teacher told us that after a personality test said she was an extrovert, she was surprised. She had always thought of herself as an introvert. But then, she realized how much talking to others helped her frame her own thoughts, so she accepted her new-found status as an extrovert.

7. Avoid crossword puzzles

Many of us, when we think of brain fitness, think of crossword puzzles. And it’s true–crossword puzzles do improve our fluency, yet studies show they are not enough by themselves.

Are they fun? Yes. Do they sharpen your brain? Not really.

Of course, if you are doing this for fun, then by all means go ahead. If you are doing it for brain fitness, then you might want to choose another activity

8. Eat right – and make sure dark chocolate is included

Foods like fish, fruits, and vegetables help your brain perform optimally. Yet, you might not know that dark chocolate gives your brain a good boost as well.

When you eat chocolate, your brain produces dopamine. And dopamine helps you learn faster and remember better. Not to mention, chocolate contains flavonols, antioxidants, which also improve your brain functions.

So next time you have something difficult to do, make sure you grab a bite or two of dark chocolate!

The bottom line

Now that you know how to train your brain, it’s actually time to start doing.

Don’t just consume this content and then go on with your life as if nothing has changed. Put this knowledge into action and become smarter than ever!

Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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