I remember when describing yourself as a multitasker was an attribute every employer wanted to hear from job candidates. Nowadays, not so much. Why? Because too many people are doing it wrong! The world is a lot more complicated and fast paced now, and so many of us don’t know how to sit still or focus effectively. We feel like we have to be doing something all the time, even multiple things at the same time. But we’re often bad at it. So to get ahead, you need to learn the right ways to multitask without damaging your brain.
How can multitasking injure our brains? The simple answer is they aren’t built for performing complex tasks simultaneously. Sure we can breathe and eat food at the same time, as well as walk and talk. But our brain freaks out if we try to do difficult things like solve a rubix cube and answer calculus questions at the same time. I actually tried to do that in high school once when I was restless and quickly failed at both. What I did succeed in was making my head want to explode and chuck the cube across the room.
So you have to choose your tasks wisely when pairing things up for multitasking. Just because we can multitask doesn’t mean we’re saving time or going to do them well together. If we overload our brains too often, studies have shown that we can become more stressed, frustrated, disorganized, and even put ourselves and others in physical danger.
Why Multitasking Isn’t The Same As Switching
Before we go over some of the wrong and right ways to multitask, let’s clarify the difference between multitasking and switching. If you have a smart phone, it’s pretty much guaranteed you’re a switcher. For example, let’s say you’re a passenger in a car. You take out your phone, launch your maps app, switch to your internet browser, send a tweet, then switch to your text messages, switch back to your maps app, take a picture, go back to your text messages, set a reminder, switch back to the maps app etc. etc. All within a minute or two. I did this just two days ago.
We’re switching rapidly ALL the time. Most people switch activities every 3 min, but sometimes we’re switching a lot faster than that. It’s part of how we’ve adapted to technology and take advantage of all the cool things our gadgets can do on demand. All of this switching however, isn’t multitasking. It may feel like it, but we’re really just rapidly going back and forth from one thing to another.
Multitasking involves doing two or more things simultaneously. Think of my earlier example of walking and talking. We do that concurrently all the time without even thinking. But when we’re going from one app to another on our phones, we’re switching. Start to see the difference now?
Right Ways To Multitask
The main objective to perform multitasking well is to combine one mundane or repetitive task with another that requires a low to medium amount of concentration. Here are five easy examples I’ve had success with that you probably have done before too.
- Watching TV and folding laundry: I do this all the time. I get my laundry out of the way and feel less guilty about spending some time watching a show.
- Washing dishes and listening to a podcast: I’m one of the few people who still washes dishes by hand, so I like to sing along to the radio or a podcast to make better use of my time and make dishes feel less annoying.
- Using a stationary bike and reading a magazine: When I used to belong to a gym, I’d bike and read or turn on the mini TV in front of me. It’s a good way to get in a longer workout because your mind is focused on reading instead of the clock counting down one second at a time.
- Hiking up a mountain and talking to a friend: If I’m not lagging too far behind, I like to talk to my hiking buddy when I’m out exploring in my Vibram Five Fingers. We talk about life, travel, the nature around us, etc.
- Writing notes when attending a lecture or meeting: We’ve all done this before. Even if we write chicken scratch, taking notes really helps us remember the key things we hear as well as jot down ideas.
Bad Ways To Multitask
Now that you’ve seen some easy, right ways to multitask, let’s look at the bad ways. These involve doing two complex things at once that require a lot of concentration. Trying to perform them both well can be next to impossible. We end up doing both of them badly, just one of them well, or giving up entirely. Avoid multitasking these type of tasks below.
- Driving and texting/talking/checking your smartphone: Please, please put your phone away when you’re driving. We’ve all been tempted or done this before and we have to stop. Real people have lost their lives because of this. No text or email is worth putting anyone in danger.
- Listening to a conference call and answering emails: I have done this before and can tell you it’s stupid. While I’m typing, I end up getting asked a question and have no idea what was being discussed or even asked of me. Minimize your email app, and focus on listening to the people on the call.
- Reading texts when having dinner with someone: Sometimes we just have to check a text if there’s an emergency or we’re waiting to hear from someone. But try not to make a habit of it. This is similar to the above – reading and listening just don’t work well together when done simultaneously.
- Writing and watching TV: I wish this was a good way to multitask, but it’s a bad one. Too many times I’ve tried to write posts for Untemplater while watching a show, and I’ll only get as far as 3-5 sentences over a one hour period. Writing takes quiet, being alone, and focusing on putting one’s thoughts down without distractions.
- Counting numbers when someone’s talking to you: Anyone who can count numbers while someone is talking to them is a genius. I simply can not do it, and I will be shocked if you can! I’m bad at counting even when no one is talking to me lol.
Noteworthy Tips To Avoid Mental Overload
Here are some other helpful tips to keep your brain from exploding from too much damaging multitasking.
- Don’t mix business and personal tasks at the same time.
- Pull the plugs out and unwind for at least an hour or two a day.
- Limit or turn off your device notifications for emails, texts, games, etc.
- Pair a mundane/repetitive physical task with a mental task
The older we get the harder multitasking becomes. Our working memory doesn’t like being overloaded. Too much of the wrong kind of multitasking can cause stress and even social problems if we aren’t able to focus and pay attention to people. Work on improving your communication if you feel overwhelmed.
To stay efficient and functional when multitasking, we have to be able to differentiate between what’s relevant and what’s not. Otherwise our minds can become cluttered, spastic, tired, and disorganized trying to do too many complicated things at once.
Untemplaters, how often do you multitask and what tasks do you pair together the most? Have you ever been successful trying to do two complex tasks simultaneously? What are some other examples of right ways to multitask that you can think of?
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EL @ MoneyWatch101.com says
I saw the title and I will admit I didn’t want to read it, but now I’m glad I did. This is great information for people who want to be multitasking mavens. Lately I have been realizing that too much switching and multitasking will lead to doing things in a not up to standards way. I want to do things right the first time so I am now reducing my switching activities. I move on once I complete the previous task. Thanks for the post.
Michael | The Student Loan Sherpa says
I am multitasking right now! Reading one of my favorite blogs and watching tv.
I don’t think it is possible to do two complex tasks at once unless one of the tasks is committed to muscle memory (like playing guitar and singing)
Jason Jewell says
I wish I had a dollar for every student who did poorly in one of my courses after they thought they could multitask during class!
Mr. Utopia @ Personal Finance Utopia says
Ok, so, I think I’m horrible at multi-tasking AND switching! I must be accumulating some bad brain damage. I have to switch all the time at work. E-mails come in, pinged via instant messager, conference calls, trying to do my actual work, etc. It makes my head spin most days. Not much I can do about it though…
Financial Samurai says
Nice job putting a word to a thing of what we all do, switching! Good analogy on the smartphone, unless of course I’ve got Pandora on while texting in the back seat of my friend’s car! ha.
I cannot stand doing one mundane thing task at a time. The mundane has to be coupled with something productive or else I feel like I’m driving a tractor on a highway.
I like pairing cleaning the house with podcasts. Or driving to Tahoe and listening to podcasts on something that helps the mind.
Yeah mundane things alone can feel painfully slow. That’s why I love folding laundry while watching a TV so I can at least pair something boring with something fun. Podcasts are great too for going well together with repetitive tasks or things that don’t require a lot of concentrate.
Money Beagle says
I admit, I regularly multi-task during conference calls and I have been busted in the past. One thing that I now do which works well is multi-task on areas of the call where I know I won’t be involved. For example, we have a program level status meeting every week, and I have to give updates on two areas. I’ll give the call 100% attention during that time, but I will often multi-task in other areas during some of the other statuses, especially those that I know for certain won’t involve me. Others I’ll make sure to keep an ear out for trigger words should there be some overlap.
I tried the method of multitasking during the parts I shouldn’t be involved in, but I’ve still gotten busted! So I’ve given that up. I’ve found that wearing my headset even when I’m not on a call is a good trick to get people to leave me alone and not come up and ask me questions if I really need to focus. 🙂