You must have heard advice about doing one thing at a time. But is multitasking always bad? Not quite. Multitasking leads to poor focus for specific tasks, while for some others, it helps you save time.
So when should you multitask, and when should you channel all your focus on one task? What’s the bottom line? Let’s find out.
In this article, I will cover:
- The concept of focus and attention
- What kind of tasks allow multitasking
- What kind of tasks require your complete attention
- How to multitask the right way
- Do women multitask better than men?
- The concept of focus and the conscious mind
- What can you multitask?
- What NOT to multitask?
- How to multitask the right way
Do women multitask better than men?
Both yes and no. To understand why, let’s go back thousands of years in time.
During those days, when human beings were still hunter-gatherers, the world was a different place. You did not have a supermarket to walk into, pushing a trolley, picking the food you like. Leaving your children at daycare while you worked in a large corporate office was not an option either.
Back then, the men would go hunting to kill an animal for food. The women would stay back at home to cater to the children. The only aim during those times was to survive and reproduce. Men and women played their part in making that happen.
Due to the responsibilities each sex had, an evolutionary theory suggests a minute difference in the multitasking skills of men and women. While hunting, the man had to focus on one thing, which was the animal he was pointing his spear towards. If he lost focus, he would miss the target and the family, their lunch.
The women, on the other hand, had to keep a keen eye on the surroundings to protect their children and themselves while the men were out hunting. She had to watch the surroundings to identify any danger and resort to safety.
Over the years, the men with a better focus survived, and so did the women who had better spatial awareness. Their genes have carried on to us today. In short, the theory suggests that men can pay attention to one thing at a time while women can process more spatial information.
However, the theory only holds good for awareness and not for switching between tasks. You might have noticed women comfortably handling a conversation while watching TV and men struggling to do them both. That said, women cannot perform any two different tasks together without losing focus.
Research has shown that when it comes to actual multitasking, both men and women do a terrible job. But some studies do indicate that women have the edge over men when it comes to spatial awareness and the ability to read body language.
The concept of focus and the conscious mind
Human beings are wired by nature to perform one task at a time. But is that the whole truth? Not quite.
Consider your brain as two different halves – the conscious and the subconscious. Though your mind biologically handles the function like an intertwined pair of earphones, let’s assume two separate parts for ease of understanding.
Any action you perform is handled by one of these parts.
1. The conscious brain
Your conscious brain handles the processing of information which requires deliberate thought. For example:
- Reading a book
- Solving a mathematical problem
- Learning a new skill like driving or a musical instrument
Have you noticed your head feeling heavy after thinking hard? That’s because your conscious brain consumes more energy than the other part. Since you have limited energy to expend, the brain tries to automate some of the skills you learn.
2. The subconscious brain
When you repeat an activity enough times, the brain learns to handle the action using your subconscious mind. You can take any routine task, for example:
When you were a kid, you had to learn how to tie your shoelaces. Today, you do it automatically.
When you sat on the driver’s seat for the first time, you felt overwhelmed with the rearview mirror, clutch, gear, brakes, indicator, and whatnot. Now, you can reach from one point to another without remembering most details.
Your brain saves energy by delegating tasks to the subconscious mind whenever possible. But, not all jobs can be moved to the subconscious brain by repetition. For example, even if you read 500 pages a day as Warren Buffet did, you will require your conscious mind to handle it because you are processing new words every day.
What can you multitask?
You can multitask when using your conscious brain for one activity and the subconscious for the other. Such multitasking falls under 2 buckets.
Combining routine activities with conscious tasks
On any given day, you will have daily chores to go through. Unfortunately, you often combine them with nothing other than idle thoughts or meaningless scrolling of the social media newsfeed.
Instead, you can combine many of those routine tasks with another job which requires deliberate thought. Here are some examples
- Solving a problem(conscious) while having breakfast(subconscious)
- Listening to a podcast/audiobook(conscious) while going for a walk(subconscious)
- Think of new ideas(conscious) while working out(subconscious)
Combine multiple shallow tasks
In his book, Deepwork, Cal Newport calls shallow work as those tasks which require little to no attention to complete. Answering text messages, buying groceries, or organizing the kitchen rack are some examples. You have to complete such tasks, but you can do so without having to focus.
In contrast, deep work is defined as the job which requires your complete attention like writing a book, solving a tough mathematical problem, or thinking of a plan to start your business. Any distractions during such tasks delays the process or effects the quality of the outcome.
You can combine multiple shallow tasks to save your time for yourself. For example:
- Brushing your teeth while having a bath
- Making casual phone calls while having lunch
- Ordering grocery while watching TV
What NOT to multitask?
Unfortunately, the common mistake people commit is to multitask the tasks that should be performed in isolation and completing the shallow jobs one at a time.
You text while you’re working and have lunch keeping your phone aside. If you pay more attention to the tasks you’re combining, you can work fewer hours, free up your schedule, and deliver better results.
Here are the tasks you should not combine:
A conscious task with a shallow or another conscious task
Texting while working is a common habit people have today. “The text takes a glance. How bad can it be?” you shrug. You assume moving from one task to another as a simple switch. In reality, it is not as simple.
Let me tell you how much of an impact a little texting causes. After you check your phone, place it back on the desk and get back to work, attention residue consumes additional time.
After you peek into your phone, the distraction doesn’t end there. The thoughts around what you just read on the screen linger around for a bit. When you return to work, your focus on the task is hampered by these residual thoughts.
Let me give you some numbers. Let us say you check your phone 10 or more times an hour, a pretty common occurrence in the current world. You roughly spend 1 min each time to check the phone and 1 min on attention residue. In total, you end up wasting 20 mins every hour which is a whopping 33% of the time.
Switching between two conscious tasks makes things even worse. You lose focus repeatedly and take more time to complete them compared to doing them separately. One such example is working on a task and replying to an email that just popped up.
When you respond to a notification, first, you lose focus on the task you were working on. Next, you have to read the email, understand the content, and compose a reply. Finally, you have to recollect where you were on the previous task, gather your thoughts, and continue.
At a glance, it seems like nothing. In the long run, switching between jobs destroys your productivity. Whenever you’re performing a task that requires conscious thought, stick to that alone, especially if it is related to your core area of expertise.
- If you are a writer, writing should be the only thing of your mind
- If you are a programmer, your brain should focus on the lines of code you’re typing
- If you are an accountant, you should channel all your attention on the statistics you’re analyzing
Put your phone away, close your chat, and exit your email. No beeps from your social media, no popups from your mailbox, no buzz’s from your text messages. Allow your conscious brain to work its magic.
How to multitask the right way
Since multitasking in itself isn’t a good practice, I won’t provide a list of tips to multitask effectively. That would be like giving the best advice to eat junk food.
The right way to multitask is to set aside your focused working hours. Based on your schedule, environment, and circumstances, decide how many hours a day you can set aside for deep work. The duration you pick isn’t as crucial as ensuring those minutes have your complete attention.
Toss your phone into a drawer, lock yourself in a room, put up a DND board, wear sound cancellation headphones, or whatever you feel works for you. The primary purpose of those hours is to work on one thing and one thing only.
You can start with 30 minutes if you like and increase the duration as and when you get comfortable. You are better off starting with a modest time window where you focus on the task rather than aim for a large number of hours where your attention is all over the place.
Multitasking your other shallow work will help you spend quality time without any distractions on the tasks that matter. Dedicate time in the day to reply to emails, make phone calls, read text messages, and browse social media.
The article on time blocking explains how to segregate your day for various tasks in detail.
Do not throw multitasking out the window. Doing two things at a time doesn’t destroy your productivity if you choose the right tasks to combine. The problem arises when you pick up any two pending tasks and decide to switch between them or work on them simultaneously.
Spend a little thought to decide the tasks you can combine and the ones you should complete in isolation. A few simple decisions can make the difference between a great and a terrible day.
Multitasking doesn’t make you unproductive by itself. It is how you multitask that does.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.