So you think you can multi­task

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Biology / Psychology

How many different things are you trying to do right now? Most of us perceive a need to multitask to get by in today’s busy western world and are convinced we’ll be more productive that way. Sorry to break it to you, but effective multitasking is actually an illusion.

With the possible exception of texting while driving, you are probably applauded for being able to multitask. But the reality is, trying to do multiple things at once actually slows you down and leads to more mistakes. Effective multitasking is nearly impossible.

We shouldn’t even call it multitasking

In fact, experts tell us even the term multitasking is wrong — we should call it task switching. Researchers suggest we may lose up to 40% of our productivity by trying to multitask.

What’s going on in your brain?

Whenever you need to pay attention to something, the prefrontal cortex in your brain springs into action. This area is at the front of your brain, on both right and left sides and is part of the brain’s motivational system. It helps you to focus your attention on a goal and coordinates messages with other parts of the brain to carry out the necessary tasks to reach your goal.

Studies carried out in 2010 used a technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at which parts of the brain are active when attempting different numbers of tasks simultaneously.

When you concentrate on one task, both sides of the prefrontal cortex work together.

When you work on two tasks concurrently, the brain operated in two halves, one half concentrating on one task and the other half, the other task.

There’s no problem until you try to do three tasks

But what happens if you add a third task? You will probably forget one of the three tasks and make three times as many errors as when attempting only two tasks. So although you can readily switch between two tasks, you can’t easily do that for more tasks simply because your brain has only two frontal lobes.

Now perhaps you are sitting there thinking, if that’s true, how come I can read this blog post, eat my lunch and listen to music all at once?

Some tasks take less brain power than others

How easy it is to juggle tasks depends on how engaged your prefrontal cortex is during the activity.

Natural behaviours like walking, talking and eating don’t take a lot of brain effort so you can do those things at the same time as paying attention to something else.

Having said that, talking on your mobile while driving increases your risk of having an accident four-fold. It’s been shown to be equivalent to driving with a blood alcohol reading of about 0.08.

When David Strayer observed 56,000 people approaching an intersection in their cars, those who were talking on their mobiles were ten times less likely to actually stop at the stop sign.

Even walking and talking on your mobile takes up most of your brain’s attention. Only one quarter of people walking and chatting on their phone noticed a clown on a unicycle ride past them who had been planted there by researchers.

Test your multitasking abilities with this simple test.

Maybe you are a ‘supertasker’

But all is not lost. Research has uncovered a small proportion of the population — about 2 or 2.5% — who have extraordinary multitasking abilities. Imagine simultaneously doing a driving test, solving complex maths problems and doing memory tests over a mobile phone.

People who can easily do that have been called supertaskers and they have brains that actually become less active the more different tasks they are trying to do at once. And that’s not all. Supertaskers do better, not worse, at each individual task the more simultaneous tasks they are doing.

But probably not

The irony is that as soon as we hear that supertaskers exist, 90% of us decide we belong in that 2%! But research has shown that the people who multitask the most and are the most confident in their multitasking abilities tend to actually be the worst at it.

This is because if you multitask often, it probably means you aren’t very good at blocking out distraction and focusing on one thing at a time. And that is likely to mean you aren’t very good at actually getting stuff done.

Maybe the day has arrived when you should concentrate on only one thing at a time.

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