Multitasking imposes cognitive limitations. Incessantly jumping between tasks leads to subpar performance. Not only that, when you’re skittering on the surface of yourself in many places at once, you’re denying true experience.
Evolutionary biologists have argued that the brain wasn’t designed for heavy-duty multitasking. Think of your brain as having multiple processing channels—visual, linguistic, tactile, and so on. Some channels can do only one thing at a time. Therefore, when you’re multitasking and moving attention back and forth between tasks that use different channels, there’s a cognitive penalty to reset and refocus.
In Defense of Multitasking: How to Do It the Right Way
Never double up on tasks that use different channels. Writing two reports simultaneously with a stock market ticker running along the top edge of your screen won’t work. But there’s no harm in surfing Instagram while watching yet another rerun of Seinfeld—you can afford to lose focus on either subject.
If you’re listening to music to improve your focus, avoid songs with lyrics because they’ll engage your brain’s language channel, creating a new distraction.
If something needs your full concentration, give it. Don’t listen to an audiobook when you’re trying to land an airliner in high crosswinds.
Never Multitask Under a Tight Deadline
Pair high-cortical involvement tasks (those that involve judgment) with routine, physical tasks that the cerebellum, the brain’s autopilot, can handle. Chitty-chatty on the phone with your mom is okay while folding laundry. But get off the phone when you’re behind the wheel in bumper-to-bumper city-center traffic.
Idea for Impact: Don’t Shun Multitasking. Put it to Work for Your Life Instead.
Life is a juggling act. In the complex, fast-response world we live in, focusing on one task to exclude others isn’t always an option anymore. Often, you have to address immediately whatever shouts most at you.
Some activities are so dull (driving cross-country through miles and miles of mildly interesting scenery) and aversive that if it weren’t for multitasking, they would never get done at all.
Know when and how to multitask. And when not to. Carve out time for deep thinking and doing the essential things. Learn to protect your “intense focus” times.
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