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So You Think You Can Multitask? Think Again.

So You Think You Can Multitask? Think Again.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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More by this author

Ciara Conlon

Productivity coach, speaker, blogger and author of Chaos to Control, a Practical Guide to Getting Things Done

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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