Multitasking and focus

Once in a while, we address the subject of multitasking. It is definitely featured in my latest course. This time I want to approach the subject from yet another perspective. You can read more here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. For training please use this exercise.

The virtues of focus

Before we discuss the right way to multitask once again, may I advise against multitasking? If you happen to have enough time and attention span to focus on each issue and invest the required effort, it might be best to that.

When we are focused on one subject we happen to be more likely to get into the flow state, the subjects we can deal with tend to be more complex, and we can continue working on the subject subconciously even if we sleep.

Multitasking might be inevitable

Sometimes multitasking is required. We might be challenged to multitask by handling several crisis situations simultaneously, especially with three or more kids. At work, we might get constantly interfered, especially if we happen to manage a department. Maybe, our time is limited, and we need to complete several activities, especially when an important visit is planned.

Maybe you will choose to multitask even if you do not have to, simply as a training exercise. Do this only if the conditions are right: the task is not very complex, the multitasking can be performed effective and a failure will not have catastrophic consequences.

There is more than just one way to multitask

For those of us who must multitask, we may better do this correctly. There are several different approaches to multitasking. I will give some kitchen inspired examples:

  • While waiting for the authomatic process, do something that requires very little effort. For example, while waiting for something to cook we can cut something else.
  • Share tools and efforts between multiple processes. It takes time to prepare the tools: cut the ingredients, heat the pans etc. We may as well share this setup time between several dishes.
  • Consider the juggling act. Especially if several tasks require different personal resources. For example, we may prepare dinner, while discussing the homework with a kid, and occasionally glimpsing at the news channel or reality show.

Multitasking usually will reduce our IQ by 20 points. This is roughly equivalent to being drunk. The examples of multitasking usually do not require a very high level of functioning.

Divide your visual span

If you want to see how stupid you become when multitasking, try making several math operations at the same time. We can divide our visualization into a 2×2 grid and visualize the latest computation in the right corner. Then we can multitask the memorization of the operations and visualization of the accumulated result.  The computation itself is sequential.

This task is similar to handing inputs from several coworkers, providing each with guidelines and monitoring the progress or playing blitz chess blindfolded on multiple boards.  A great chess master can play chess on multiple boards this way and even win against players of an inferior level. Of cause, this sort of mastery is extremely difficult to achieve.

Please notice that this sort of control is usually visual. Similar results can probably be achieved by physical agility (I never studied the underlying mechanisms).

Choose the right time to multitask

We should ideally multitask when we have signifiantly more focus and energy than are required by the tasks. If we are tired, maybe we should not multitask. When our focus is not very good, we may get entirely into one task forgetting everything else. Sometimes multitasking appears as a lack of respect in communication, and this should be avoided.

Great crisis managers can mobilize extreme amounts of focus and energy to deal with the issues that require attention. This supreme mobilization for short periods of time can probably be trained. Typically the behavior is associated with high levels of dopamine and adrenaline, and other hormones which are often associated with competitive athletes.

Take a break and rest before and after multitasking. It can have a toll on your body and focus.

Working with multitaskers

When we work with multitaskers, we should expect very high proficiency in very superficial jobs. Most of the multitasking mechanisms use automatic thinking rather than creativity or deliberation. The results will typically be simple, template-like and very clear. Some of these people can focus later on a single complex task very effectively, others cannot. Do not interrupt such a person when he asks you to do so.

I have seen good multitaskers handling more complex tasks, like a patent attorney reviewing the material, writing down comments and discussing feedbacks at the same time. The sort of multitasking that involves language is typically done by ladies.  Men are better in multitasking spatial orientation tasks, like driving, viewing map and texting at the same time.  Notice, the reaction time will be greatly reduced by multitasking.

Gamma waves

Creativity often requires so-called gamma waves,  e.g. simultaneous activation of several areas in our brain. Quite often creativity requires a strange kind of multitasking when we hold several perceptive positions at the same time. There is no duality when we can consider the different aspects at the same time. As an exercise, I sometimes imagine a conference table, where I held positions of three people around the table and a monitor above the table. My multitasking limit for most exercises is four. I think this is average, but I did not read the relevant studies really well.

Embrace boredom

When we meditate, swim or otherwise do something automatically, our brain often jumps very quickly between many ideas. This process is natural and we should accept it. After a while, the brain cleans up from this mental noise and we can focus on a single task. Our brain can multitask handling of emotional situations and often does not need long deliberate focus on any issue. Quite often the jumps between the subjects will be so fast we will hardly notice. Procrastination and laziness might be symptomatic for multitasking and hard work under the surface, especially in highly creative individuals.

The issue of control

When we multitask we need some level of control over the situation, simply to deal with the tasks in due time.  There are several ways to achieve this.

  • Control the environment. If we work in a safe environment everything is easier. This is often very easy: when we do not need to share resources and can ask others to stay away.
  • Delegate. Have someone available on short notice to keep the things ticking if we are called away to do an urgent task. Typically this is very easy when we work in a team.
  • Automate. If there are some failsafe mechanisms, when we stop multitasking the damage is limited.
  • Prioritize. Sometimes it is OK to fail in some activities, as long as we are successful in the main activity.  For example, we may want to demonstrate some new feature to a potential investor, but the old features are good enough for the demo.
  • Separate. Do not allow a failure of any particular task to generate a domino effect. This is particularly important when sharing resources.
  • Be responsible. Even if the situation is not optimal, and we work well below our top performance, we are still responsible for the outcome. Our reputation can be damaged by the mistakes we make. Do not let your multitasking affect your reputation.
  • Focus on the job. Multitasking is hard as it is. Avoid unrelated thoughts, such as analysis of “what-if scenarios”, worries and doubts, questioning and measuring the chosen techniques etc.

No summary

You will read a lot about how bad multitasking is. This is true for the people who do not know how to multitask. Instead, think how complex the correct multitasking is. If you decide to master it, the journey ahead is an interesting one… The image below is a myth

effortless multitasking



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