It’s really not a brain thing. Here’s the thing about your brain – it can only focus on one thing at a time.
According to cognitive psychologist Art Markman, “The human brain doesn’t really multitask. What the brain does is what I call time-sharing.”
If this is true, how does anybody multi-task?
Because we have seen people do it, and many of us have actually done it ourselves. In fact, according to Markman, our brain shifts back and forth among many tasks, but does it so quickly we don’t realize it is happening. We think we are doing multiple things at the same moment, but are not.
Still, we do envy people who can multi-task successfully, because they do seem to be more productive – they just get more done. So, how can we learn to do this too?
From Students to Small Business Owners
Throughout our lives, we have at least observed successful multi-taskers.
Maybe we have shared a dorm room with someone who is engaged in thesis writing only to be interrupted by a phone call, to take that call, and continue to focus on the screen, pecking on the keyboard, with the phone between chin and shoulder and talking.
How does someone engage in academic writing and a social call at the same time?
Consider the small business owner who is running a one-man operation. He is in the midst of paper help to a potential client when another client phones. He takes the call and continues with his writing at the same time.
Now, both of these people’s brains are actually “speed dating.” Those brains are shifting focus rapidly, and both tasks get accomplished.
There can be issues with these kinds multi-tasking. When the brain hops back and forth like this, focus is continually interrupted; and when focus is constantly interrupted, memory is negatively impacted.
There are also simpler, slower types of multi-tasking. People may drive to work and listen to a podcast related to some professional development; with an earbud in, s/he may be (safely, we hope) on a conference call while continuing to drive.
A mom who has gone back to school, will view an eCourse lesson on her laptop while she fixes supper or while she folds laundry.
These types of multi-tasking are actually more productive, and memory does not appear to be impacted, as the “speed dating” type does.
Strategies to Multi-Task Effectively
You can develop strategies to multi-task effectively, minimize the impact on your memory, and accomplish more in a shorter amount of time. Here are those strategies:
1. Start with a Daily To-Do List
You might make your list the night before or first thing in the morning – it really doesn’t matter. What does matter is that you include everything, from a conference call to a dentist’s appointment.
Once you have that list, it’s time to engage in some critical thinking. This task should consume your entire focus, so do not multi-task while you analyze the list. Here is what you are looking to do:
Identify those tasks that you can easily do at the same time. For example, if you have a dental appointment, what task can you work on while you are in the waiting room? Certainly, you can respond to those emails that you know are coming in today.
2. Group Related Tasks Together
Are there tasks that are related that dovetail nicely together? Can you work on both at the same time?
- If you are a student, for example, and you have reading assignments for a specific class and also a research paper that will be due in that same class, perhaps the reading assignment relates to a paper you will be writing. While you complete that reading assignment, take notes that you will later be able to use for your paper. This is very effective writing help that you can give yourself.
- If your to-do list includes preparing a proposal for a potential client, how can working on that proposal help you on another proposal you will also be constructing? While the details may not be the same, the concepts may be. You can make an outline for the second proposal while you produce the first.
The goal here is to minimize the jumping back and forth of the brain between two completely unrelated tasks. When they are related, your focus and your memory are much better.
3. Use Any Downtime to Review and Remember
When you have had an unbelievably chaotic day, you may have had to engage in multi-tasking that was totally unplanned. These are the interruptions that you cannot plan for but that force you into multi-tasking.
You are in the middle of an important report you must get out by the end of business. Your boss comes into your office and hands you a report that you must read and sign off on. Or your assistant bursts in with a crisis of sorts that must be handled right now, and you have to take a phone call. These are the types of interruptions that will force your brain to jump back and forth between two unrelated items.
As soon as you have some downtime, force your brain to go back to those events, one at a time. Make notes, so that you will remember important decisions or the results of that “crisis” that interrupted your report writing. You may even want to develop a template for these types of reviews, so that you have a type of customized writing format.
Your brain is a marvelous computer. But it does have its imitations. You can multi-task and still not put it on overload if you follow these three strategies. Best of all? You will still remain productive.