The Secret to Multitasking

One of the great advances of the computer age is the ability to do a huge number of things from the comfort of your desk.  Yes, thanks to your computer (and increasingly, even more portable devices like cell phones and notepads), you can do everything from accessing the web to monitoring your bank accounts to typing papers for a class or business meeting.  It truly is a wondrous time when people can accomplish a great many things quickly and easily from the comfort of their office.

Although, you start to run into problems if you try to do everything at once.  The ease with which you can open multiple windows, having email, Twitter, Facebook, several websites for work, and of course, The Amateur Financier all open at once leads many people to do exactly that, bouncing from one task to another as your interest in one thing fades and shifts to something else.  In this way, you should be able to get even more things done at once, right?  That is, after all, the reason so many people try to multitask; if they didn’t get more done, they’d stop trying to do so, right?

Well, not so much.  While multitasking can give you the illusion that you’re getting more done, in actuality, you’re taking longer than if you did each task one at a time.  Even if you are switching quickly between one task and another quickly, your brain takes a while to shift gears (as long as 15 minutes), particularly if you go from a task that requires a lot of attention (say, writing a blog entry) to something that requires less focus (say, reading through email).  Unitasking, that is, doing one thing at a time and focusing your entire attention on said task, gets you much better results, in less time.  (Plus, it’s apparently better for your health and your memory to boot.)

Multitasking Successfully

But, as a serial (and recovering) multitasker myself, I’ve stumbled across a little secret: there ARE some times when it is possible to multitask without your productivity (or mental health) suffering as a result.  The key is both simple, and easy to put into practice:

Only Do Tasks That Use Different Parts of Your Brain At the Same Time

The big problem with multitasking as most people do it is that they try to do too many things that use the same parts of their brain at the same time.  Reading email, writing reports, reading research; all require that you use the language related portions of your brain.  If you want to multi-task successfully, you need to combine tasks that can go together without distracting needed attention from each other, such as:

-Listening to Audiobooks while Doing Chores: We do need to do a variety of tasks around the house, from laundry to dishes to dusting.  While these tasks require a certain amount of focus, they rarely require listening; so putting that part of your brain to work by learning new things should allow you to knock a few items off both your ‘To Do’ list and your ‘To Learn’ list at once.  (You can also listen while driving, something I do a great deal, although when you need to focus on the road, you can sometimes lose track of what the audiobook is saying.)

-Listening to (Instrumental) Music While Reading or Writing: In the same vein, listening to music while reading or writing allows you to put the unused portions of your brain to work while still getting your task done.  Note, though, my emphasis on ‘instrumental’; if you try to listen to music with vocals, you’ll likely end up picturing the words in your head (or even singing along), which will end serving as a distraction from your chosen task.  Conversely, a little Bach or Mozart while you write can prove both entertaining and stimulating.

-Eat While Reading: Now, we are starting to get into more questionable combinations of work and other tasks; there is a tendency when you are working or otherwise occupied to overeat or otherwise eat improperly.  But, you have to eat, and compared to simply watching TV, reading something allows you to expand your mind and build up your knowledge.

Cautions for Multitaskers

Now, even trying to stick to this rule and only ‘multitasking’ with tasks that will not interfere with each other, you might still run into problems.  Every bit of distraction, even those that don’t directly affect the senses you need for the task at hand, can prove deleterious.  Plus, there is the risk of slipping into more and more pronounced types of multitasking; you start with listening to a little classical music while you type, and before you know it, you’ve got eight windows open at one time while you try to juggle three different email accounts, research for a major project, and Facebook.

If you do find yourself in that sort of situation, it’s better to go cold turkey; simply keep one window, with one program, open at a time, and force yourself to keep focus on just one task until you finish it and can go onto the next one.  This is, I’ll be the first to admit, easier said than done (I’ve had plenty of my own trouble trying to carry it out), but there are few other options if you’re finding that your multi-tasking is seriously slowly down your productivity.  There are plenty of resources to help you avoid the perils of multitasking (including this impressive article from zen habits), but ultimately, it’s up to you and your self-control to only multitask when you can do so and increase, rather than decrease, your productivity.  Good luck, and have a productive time.

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