Studies have shown definitively that multitasking is not particularly good for our productivity. While we might think that it would be useful to try and complete multiple tasks at once in order to save time and finish more quickly, the reality is that we would almost always be better served by completing one task then moving on to the other. The reason for this is simply that it’s difficult to divide our attention without losing some computational power, and that ‘flitting’ between tasks will usually prevent us from achieving a ‘flow state’ (where you are so focused on a single task that you complete it almost automatically without thinking about anything else).
Despite this research being well documented however, many of us will nevertheless still attempt to multitask against our better judgement. The promise of being able to do multiple things at once and of being able to finish our work more quickly is just too appealing.
The good news is that there are exceptions to this rule, and that sometimes it is possible to get more out of multitasking. All it takes is for you to understand a little better how your brain works, and to multitask in a way that takes advantage of that knowledge rather than riling against our natural abilities. If you want to be able to multitask without damaging your productivity, and while even potentially improving your ability to work, read on and heed this advice…
Choosing Your Tasks
The problem with way that most people try to multitask, is that they choose the tasks they try to juggle poorly. You are guilty of this if you have ever spoken on the phone while updating a profile, if you have ever monitored your e-mail account while writing an article, or if you have ever attempted to speak on the phone while programming or driving.
The problem here is that the tasks ‘overlap’. You can’t possibly do any of those two things without losing processing power, because they draw on the same faculties which can only be directed one way at a time.
Instead then, the secret is to try and choose activities that use different brain functions and to do those at the same time instead. A good example would be listening to the TV (and watching absent-mindedly) while designing a logo for a website or an icon for an app.
When you write and watch TV at the same time, you will be sharing your internal monologue which is needed for both. However when you draw and watch TV you can use your hearing and your speech recognition to enjoy the latter, and use your creativity, motor skills and special awareness to do the former. Better yet is to watch TV while running on a treadmill – these require completely different skills – or to do your design while you talk on the phone.
Other examples can include listening to music (lyricless) while writing, watching silent video (such as someone playing a game on YouTube) while writing or coding, cleaning the house while chatting on the phone, making phone calls while playing on the Xbox, watching YouTube while doing the dishes, or doing data entry at the same time as practically anything else.
Multitasking… Only Useful
The first bit of good news here, is that multitasking in this way will no longer require you to try and split your brain in half and see a drop in quality. This means that you can accomplish more faster and that you’ll be less likely to put off the really boring tasks. Ever found yourself getting behind on your correspondence because you just want to relax and maybe play a game while when you get home from work? Then the perfect solution is to talk to your friends while walking home, or while you play a bit of CoD. The better news though, is that it will also make you actually more productive and help you to focus harder and for longer without getting bored.
The reason for this is simple: suddenly a boring task like writing an essay or doing data entry will become more interesting. It’s hard to sustain focus on data entry or filling out forms partly because it’s so boring. However if you do this while watching someone play a game of Sonic the Hedgehog on YouTube it becomes more stimulating and you will find your mind is less likely to wander to other things that you find more interesting. This will work especially well if the second task is something you want to do. This way you can trick yourself into looking forward to checking answering your work e-mail, because you’ll get to listen to an album you’ve just bought at the same time.
Used correctly you can use these strategies to make a work day into something you actually enjoy so that you’re never doing just one boring thing that you can’t stomach.