Single-tasking Series: Part 2 – Why and How we Multi-task

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(Click here if you missed Part 1 in this series)

A hidden energy crisis threatens our world. Society throws people into chronic physical, emotional, and spiritual depletion. Multi-tasking lets us manage a deluge of very real duties, but it also jeopardizes the now.

Judith Orloff

I’ve found some great reads on the subject of multitasking:

What’s become clear from reading these articles is that this phenomenon is not really new. It has been studied and talked about for years now, yet no-one really pays much attention (pun intended).

To better understand it, I think it important to look at the processes and mechanisms at work.

How the brain handles multitasking

The human brain IS able to multitask BUT ONLY in a limited number of ways.

I can type this blog post and chew gum at the same time.

I can also drive while listening to music or maybe even an audio book.

If I were to type this blog post while driving however, I’m pretty sure there’d be a problem. What about typing while listening to an audio book?

The effects of multitasking are largely related to the how the brain is used when performing certain functions.

Generally speaking, tasks for which you have reached the level of unconscious competence (you can perform these tasks effectively without thinking about performing them) are more suitable for multitasking.

“Passive” tasks (e.g listening to music) too are easier to multitask.

Tasks that use the same part of the brain are less suitable for multitasking (e.g. having a telephone conversation while typing an email). When one part of the brain needs to handle two or more tasks, it needs to take care of them one at a time.

While the brain can multitask in limited ways, conscious attention can only be focussed on a single activity at a time.

The problem is that everyday we are faced with more things competing for that attention. (The Attention Economy).

What this leads to is a tendency towards trying to tackle more tasks simultaneously than your brain can handle. for many of these tasks, it is simply not possible to truly multitask. Instead, you sequenci-tasktackling each one briefly and incompletely before cycling through to the next task. To compensate, you have to give less than 100% to each of them.

Stimulation vs Performance

When we switch from one task to another, it triggers a chemical response within the brain, creating a stimulant effect.

The old idiom of, “Change is as good as a holiday” may hold a deeper truth – stimulants are a substitute for rest.

The relationship between stimulation and performance is a bell curve – with low-level stimulation there are increases in productivity but beyond a certain point, the level of productivity decreases. One cup of coffee wakes you up, gives your neurons a jump-start and improves mental performance. Five cups is likely to make you feel wired and restless, decreasing productivity.

Relating this point back to the earlier one, it’s clear that multitasking helps fight boredom and stimulates the mind. It gives a mild, almost imperceptible buzz. However, excessive multitasking puts us at risk over-stimulation, which creates that feeling of being ‘all over the place’ mentally.

We multitask because we can and because it makes us feel good. It becomes habitual and it becomes chronic.

Are you a chronic multitasker?

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