Multitasking is something most of us do daily. Sometime it’s thinking about the day ahead while brushing your teeth (guilty). Other times is having lunch and reading emails (also guilty). The professional world in particular makes us believe this is the solution for busy lives.
I was reading this article and it made me think about attention. The text talks about including rest in your schedule as the ultimate way to maximise focus at work. There are many other articles taking about taking a break for every hour you are concentrating on something for example.
When multitasking works
Recent studies confirm that although multi-tasking is sometimes possible, it is not feasible in all circumstances. In a nutshell, when there is the possibility to automate one of the tasks in hand, the brain can easily cope with doing something else. This is especially true if it uses a different modality (e.g. visual and auditory). But if the two tasks are competing for the same mental resources, it is likely performance of one or both will be impaired.
I notice that while I’m driving and planning the day ahead in my mind, my body contracts. As soon as I arrive, it feels like I carry the world on my shoulders so tired my muscles are. Planning requires a lot of thinking and reasoning, so certainly isn’t an automatic process. Neither is driving, despite the famous “highway hypnosis” some motorists report.
Where’s the fire?
The point is that we overburden our brains with information. It is actually much more efficient to let it process one thing at a time. After all, where’s the fire? Making the time to do one thing at a time is quite a recent theme, with many people embarking on the practice of mindfulness. The act of being present is not always the easiest but certainly allows achieving much more.
[for more information on multitasking, see ‘Attention and expertise in multiple target tracking’ by Allen, R., McGeorge, P., Pearson, D. and Milne, A.B. (2004)]