Multi-tasking…Good or Bad?

People are restless and anxious and the whole environment around is filled with anxiety, competition and pace. We would see every one running around trying to do as much as they can to prove themselves. Now people think multi-tasking is a key to achieve goals in as much less time as possible.

Question here is, whether our brain is capable of multitasking without losing focus?. Can the quality be retained even if you are switching between tasks so frequently? Now let’s understand what happens to our brain when we switch over jobs/thought so frequently…

The cortex of the brain handles “executive control” and allocates the mind’s resources and prioritizes between tasks. When we multi-task our brain actually rapidly switches focus from one task to another. That’s because the cerebral cortex can pay attention to only one thing at a time. However, there’s a lag of up to several tenths of a second each time it handles a switch. Hence people are actually not doing multiple tasks at a time however shifting their attention from one task to another in rapid succession. If one of the tasks sparks too many unrelated thoughts then the brain loses track of one task. This tiny bit of time lag in switching over can add up to inefficiencies and reduce the quality of the work on any given task.

Doing several things at once is a trick we play on ourselves to think we’re getting more accomplished. In reality, we are getting less productive. Even if some of us train our brain to multi-task, we may get more work done, however, chances of quality getting impacted are pretty high.

Why do you think many accidents happen when people are attending to a mobile while driving? Talking on a cell phone can impair driving performance, even when the driver is using a hands-free device. That is because when attention of brain is directed to listening then the input to visual parts of brain gets impacted, hence focus shifts from driving to listening for few milliseconds, which are very critical on the road.

Multi-tasking affects the brain's learning systems too and as a result, we do not learn as well when we are distracted, as we are not able to concentrate. Even if we learn while multi-tasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so we cannot retrieve the information as easily. Hence the capacity to recall memories reduces when placed in a different context and you would not be able to apply your learning flexibly but only to the context in which you had learnt.

If you note your typical day you would be required to do multiple tasks simultaneously, there are phone calls, internal meetings, emails and other interruptions that are relatively constant throughout. So what is the conclusion? should you never multi-task? Below are suggestions which may  help you decide "when to multi-task" and "when not to" and how to do it…
  • You should not multi-task while you are trying to learn  something new and complex that you hope to remember and apply diversely. However, for relatively less complex and repetitive tasks, multi-tasking is the answer like listening to music can energize people and increase alertness and clubbing it with exercising can be helpful
  • Mix and match. Pair tasks that involve judgment -- with routine, physical tasks. As both the tasks do not involve learning, switching over will be much more easy and effective
  • A sleepy brain can’t focus. Give adequate rest to your brain and have at least 7 hours’ sleep
  • Do most critical things which require too much of thought when your mind is completely fresh, may be in the morning
  • E.mail, Internet, texting should not be clubbed with anything essential you are doing. In fact anything that requires focused attention should not be clubbed with other activities
  • Try to do what you love and what matters most. Organize your life around this principle, and you won’t be tempted away from the task at hand.
  • When attempting tasks which need a huge amount of brain power you may wish to do some self hypnosis or meditation to increase your power of concentration which is the opposite of multitasking
  • Work on your time management skills and prioritize tasks. Address one task at a time and keep the tasks small. Keeping a task small may involve breaking a large task down to several sequenced smaller tasks
One habit that most of us face, throughout our lives, is losing focus. Once you are able to consistently focus on one task at a time it will then become easier to conquer this habit. Always remember that for a leap you have to take at least few steps backwards, pause and then gain momentum…..So when you ask yourselves “Is multitasking good or bad?”, it’s both...apparently….

2 comments:

  1. Raj

    I havnt seen any other practical way of looking at multitasking than this. Spot on and very realistic.

    All the talks that I hear and read about Multi-Tasking are conveniently forgetting the fact that reality is different and we need to face it.

    Your tips are valuable and very realistic.

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  2. Fortunately there are many ways of getting focus back.
    - One can use the Pomodoro technique to ensure you remind yourself every X minutes that you need to focus on what you are doing.
    - Ensure the least amount of distractions are presented to you. One can reduce this by disabling alarms and cycle through important stuff every 45 minutes or so.
    - Have a system like Getting Things Done, to ensure you don't need to continuously remind yourself of what you need to do.

    From my personal experience I would say that getting enough sleep and excercise alongside a meditation in the morning helps you to keep your mind fresh.
    In addition one shouldn't eat too much, drink enough water and one should regulary take some time away from the desk.

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