Multitasking is possible, but it’s more complicated than we think
Back when I was still working in a hotel, one of my main jobs in the afternoon was to send the invoices of all the guests that checked out during the day. I’d have to go through each account one by one, determine which folio to send, and ensure that I send it to the correct email address. The whole process would take about an hour and a half to finish, and I kept doing this for a year and a half. By then, I was so good at sending invoices that I could do it within 30–45mins while effectively listening to an audiobook, or holding a conversation with a guest on the phone.
I know the feeling so well. The task completely blurs out of my cognition, and I could use my full attention to do whatever I please. It’s like playing the piano and singing at the same time, which is another form of multitasking.
There has been a lot of debate in recent years over whether it truly works, but the problem with these studies is that they focus on tasks that are very hard to do simultaneously, and they are usually short-term studies that don’t really push the limits of our mental capacities.
It is important to note that Focusing and Multitasking are not opposites or mutually exclusive, and it actually takes lots of focus in order to multitask properly. Much of recent neuroscience research will tell you that the brain does not actually do multiple tasks simultaneously, but instead switch or bounce quickly from one task to another. This may be true of our understanding of how the brain functions while performing multiple tasks, but not in the broader definition of multitasking.
I agree that the mind can only focus on one task at a time, in the same way that I can’t stir two mugs of coffee with the same hand. But in most cases, that rapid switching from one task to another is already a form of multitasking. So it is definitely possible to do two or more things at the same time — it’s just not as easy as we might think.
Daniel Kahneman, author of bestselling book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” said that multitasking is only possible if the jobs are easy and undemanding. Our attention has a limited capacity, and that’s why it’s difficult to do multiple high-intensity jobs at the same time. The good news is that specific tasks can become easy for us over time, and this is the first step to improve our multitasking skill: to master and automate the simple tasks.
It is easy for a chef to chop onions in a safe and uniformed way while watching the broth and planning the next step in real time because the act of chopping is already automated. In a study featured at the Harvard Business Review, where two groups of participants are asked to perform a series of tests involving movement and visual coordination: one group is asked to do a single task while the other was asked to do multiple things. Then, the participants were asked to repeat the exercise, but some of the single taskers were asked to switch to multitasking, and some of the multitaskers were asked to do a single task. What they found was that the multitaskers showed more improvement than the single taskers, because they are either doing the same level of high-intensity work or doing less work with some of the same features. Therefore, they concluded that the critical factor in learning how to multitask is a consistent context.
Jobs that have a consistent context are usually the ones that feel repetitive in our schedule. You want to look for the jobs that are too easy, as these are the ones that you could potentially automate and multitask with something else.
It should go without saying, but definitely avoid multitasking with high-risk tasks like driving, using dangerous equipment, and operating heavy machinery. Safety should always be paramount.
Musicians are excellent multitaskers, primarily because of their extensive training on complex stimuli such as notes, melody, pitch, rhythm, and emotional themes. A study published in the Journal of Cognitive Science reported that this superior control over stimuli assists in efficiently responding to an environment where switching and non-switching components exist. So in learning from the musicians, we must approach multitasking as if we were studying a new instrument: by developing a heightened sense of control towards an overwhelming amount of work.
Training is vital in developing this skill, which is why it is important to choose a job that you have to do on a regular basis, or one that you are devoted to practising in the long run.
The brain itself is also an excellent multitasker. It is constantly regulating our bodily functions, maintaining spatial awareness, managing our senses, and matching patterns, thoughts and memories to formulate new ideas; and that’s not even all of it. The brain does this so well because it efficiently delegates jobs to different parts of itself, which is ideally what we want to emulate when we’re dealing with several duties.
Each job requires a specific part of our body in order to complete. Folding the laundry, for example, requires our hands and our eyes so it would be difficult to watch television while doing it because our eyes are already preoccupied. The goal is to ensure that the tasks you have chosen does not overlap with each other, or require attention from the same physical or mental processor. Only do what you can handle, and aim for a smoother workflow and accurate execution.
Finally, always remember that there is a time and place for multitasking; and using your phone while in a conversation with someone is not one of them. Don’t miss out on life by choosing to split your attention with meaningful interactions and activities.
Multitasking is a great way to make the most out of our time. It is a challenging way to approach our productivity and mastery of our craft. It sharpens the mind and pushes the boundaries of what we are capable of, but only if you dare to do more.