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Can we REALLY multitask?

First of all, what is multitasking? Pick an answer.

A - The superpower that some very productive people show when really busy.

B - The ability of our mind to be engaged in several different things at the exact same time in parallel.

C - Quickly switching our attention from one task to another and back again.

How many of us have answered A?

There’s a huge temptation to consider people doing multiple things at the same time as superheroes. It’s easy to believe this myth and feel like we’re not productive enough if doing just one task at a time. Actually, trying to do many things at once results in decreased productivity! (Tell that to your boss).

Let's explore the other answers to discover why.

If we think that B is the right answer, it’s easy to see why so many people praise multitasking as something we should all adopt to be better performers in our everyday tasks. It would (maybe) be amazing if we could actually engage in several things at exactly the same time. The point is that we can't. Martina Ratto, Beingwell Cognitive Scientist, explains:

“What our brain actually does is to focus on one task at a time, and then quickly switch between one task and another, giving us only the impression that the two tasks are actually performed together.”

What’s more, this task-switching exercise has a cost, in terms of both time and energy. When trying to multitask we end up being constantly distracted and it takes our brains a little time to come back to focusing on a task after switching. This means that we will actually need more time to perform two tasks together, than we would take to perform them one at a time instead.

Multitasking = productive is a false myth!

In the end, the right answer is C

As human beings, we actually borrowed the term multitasking from computer science. The multitasking that our brain is able to do is not too dissimilar to what a computer does. When we’re playing Spotify on our laptop while editing pictures on Photoshop and downloading a large file in the background, what our machine is doing is switching access to internal resources, such as the processor and the memory, between the programmes that are currently in use. Say, what!? Yep, it’s true. The switch is so quick that we think that the programmes are actually running together at the same time but they’re not. Think about experiencing very low speeds or even freezes, on our laptops or phones, when we try to get them to do too many things at the same time.

The same happens in our brains.

When are we able to multitask?

Martina Ratto, explains:

“When we perform tasks with a high level of automation: in doing tasks that are very familiar and route to us, we can allow ourselves to multitask, as those tasks require us to use very little mental resources.”

For example, we might find it easy to listen to the radio or talk with our passengers while driving our car on a familiar road. Or taking notes in a meeting. That requires a tad more mental effort, but it’s doable.

When should we avoid multitasking?

When a task requires a high level of attention, perhaps because it’s tricky, new to us, risky (think driving at night in a storm), or we’re out of our comfort zones. In these cases, we’re much better off focusing on one single task and using our mental resources without distractions.

Or maybe we’ve got a ‘to do’ list as long as an arm. It might feel counterintuitive but focusing on one task at a time can support us to get through everything quicker. Pop them into priority order and complete each of them in order, rather than attempt to multitask and end up jumping from one task to another. Which isn’t great for our productivity or stress levels.

Some people find it helpful to set an alarm for, say, half an hour and focus on just one task for that time. Then get up for a few minutes to stretch or grab a cuppa, and set another alarm to crack on with the task.

Can we train our multitasking ability?

We can, as it largely depends on our executive function (the director of our mind), which can improve with brain exercises. Working memory span and attention switching are key abilities that can be trained so that we can effectively multitask when needed.

Martina Ratto says,

“This does NOT mean we should try to multitask as much as we can: trying to avoid it is actually the best thing we can do in several situations!”

Brainpower: Head on over to your wellometer to unlock MyCognition and do a spot of brain training with our app, AquaSnap. Included in your Beingwell membership (you’re welcome).




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