The Truth About Multitasking

There was a time when I envied people who can do multitasking.

I’m talking about those kids who can finish their school assignments and projects, different household chores, and extracurricular activities.

But they still manage to squeeze in the “fun” stuff, like listening to music, playing video games, and hanging out with their friends.

How do they do it?


What Is Multitasking?

The term “multitasking” has its origins within the context of computers and Internet technology. Originally, it meant working on several tasks by having several browsers or applications open on your computer.

As the use of computer and the Net went mainstream, “multitasking” became a popular term, especially in business and employment circles.


In one of their articles, the American Psychological Association (APA) characterises multitaskers in three ways:

  1. Can perform two or more tasks simultaneously
  2. Can switch from one task to another with ease
  3. Perform two or more tasks in quick succession


Such astounding accomplishments are usually done within a short period of time, usually within one hour.

Yes, multitasking seems impossible for many people.

Well…that very same illustrious body of psychologists I have mentioned above have declared in another article that multitasking UNDERMINES EFFICIENCY.

In fact, an article in Forbes has even gone on to declare that multitasking is “falling out of favor” among employers and that they are instead looking to hire people with “greater focus and attention to detail.”


The Fall of Multitasking

You’ve probably heard of a lot of analogies on how multitasking works and fails. Let me give you a better description.

Imagine your brain as one of those old-time switchboards with someone plugging and disconnecting phone cables. Now, this switchboard has two separate mechanisms that allow for the switching of connections. As that person plugs in the phone cable, the first mechanism of choosing to switch to a new connection is received by the switchboard. The switchboard then kicks in the second mechanism, which shuts off the old connection to give way to the new one.


This is what happens when you multitask. Every task you perform has specific sets of cognitive rules. In the first mechanism called Goal Shifting, your brain “chooses” to switch to a different task while you’re still doing the current task.

Once that decision is made, the second mechanism called Rule Activation kicks in, prompting your brain to shut off the cognitive rules of the old task and switch on the cognitive rules of the new task.

The problem with multitasking is that the brain does not have enough connections to allow for effective switching between tasks. Because of this, the access and activation of the cognitive rules for the new task takes time.


So, if you repeatedly switch back and forth between various tasks, there are four negative effects…

1) You kill whatever momentum you have built while doing that first task

2) Take a much longer time in starting on the new task

3) Develop attention residue (wherein you are in a constant state of fretting that you are doing a new task while the old one is yet undone)

4) For the long term, your brain loses the ability for sharp focus and attention to a single task.

5) The rapid switching stimulates the pleasure centers of the brain. Because of this, school activities that don’t involve rapid and repeated task switching – like paying attention to your teacher – becomes boring, so that you give less attention to what is being taught.


These effects are especially bad for students whose brains are still developing. Because your brain is constantly firing off messages in preparation for these rapid attention shifts, you end up becoming incapable of long-term learning.


Just take a look at these scientifically proven negative results of multitasking…

1) They take much longer to complete tasks.

2) They make more mistakes or errors.

3) They experience greater difficulties in information learning and retention while multitasking.

4) Productivity and efficiency in performance of tasks is reduced by up to 40 percent due to focus impairment.

5) Multitasking prevents a person from getting the required 8 hours of sleep at night, so that they experience a temporary drop in IQ by about 10 points.

6) Expect mere passing grades or, worse, poor/failing academic results.


Strategies for More Effective “Multitasking”

Okay, okay.

I have spent a good number of words explaining why multitasking is bad. Now I’m offering strategies for a more efficient way of doing the same.

You’re probably thinking, “Aren’t you contradicting yourself?”

Not necessarily.

You see, there are unavoidable occasions wherein you need to multitask. Like when your teachers swamp you with assignments and projects. Or when you’re doing reviews of a multitude of subjects in preparation for the HSC exams.

The trick to effective multitasking is by employing strategies that will MINIMISE rapid and progressive task switching that is often done with ineffective and inefficient multitasking.

Let me list these strategies for you…


1) Use your brain’s serial processing function to greater advantage than parallel processing.

Parallel processing means that you are doing two things at the same time. On the other hand, serial processing means you are undertaking tasks one after another in a sequence or series.

Parallel processing is the brain function that is often mistaken for multitasking, but as I explained, you cannot perform two complex tasks at the same time. A good example of parallel processing is when you’re studying while listening to music, which is considered an “automatic” or “brainless” activity requiring zero to minimal focus.

Now, serial processing is what those kids who seem to be good in everything do, in order to accomplish all of their tasks and chores.

What they do is to compose a list of tasks, chores, and activities that they will be doing each day for an entire week, giving greater time and attention to the most important tasks.

This way, they only focus and work on one task at a time until they complete it.

Because they finish their tasks, they do not have to worry about other tasks that they had put aside.


2) Give yourself sufficient time between tasks.

Let’s face it. Scheduling tasks can be a difficult. For example, you may allot 30 minutes to doing an English essay, but later find you need an hour or more for both the research and the writing. In other cases, tasks that you allot more time to will only take a few minutes for you to get done.

Here’s what you do…

  1. Assign one major task to do in the morning and another major task in the afternoon. This allows you to give your undivided focus and attention on each of these tasks with sufficient time to complete them.
  2. If you have smaller tasks to perform in between these major tasks, make sure you allot 15-minute breaks between tasks to rest or do the finishing touches on your work.
  3. Avoid packing your schedule with teacher appointments, meetings and other activities. It is suitable to schedule a teacher meeting on days when you’re not too busy with major tasks. Otherwise, again, allot 15-minute breaks between appointments.


3) Never stop what you’re doing for an urgent task.

Often, you may be progressing nicely on an assigned report when you suddenly remember that you have a two-page essay that you need to submit first thing in the morning.

DO NOT SWITCH TASKS. Instead, take out a sheet of paper and jot down the assignment and tuck it underneath the report that you are doing. Once you are finished with the report, take the sheet of paper with the assignment, re-arrange your schedule, and proceed to doing it. This helps you to maintain your focus on the current task as well as mentally prepare you for the following work.


4) Unburden yourself of smaller tasks by bunching them altogether within a time frame.

There are a number of day-to-day tasks that you need to do together with your more important work.

Since these smaller tasks don’t require too much dedicated focus or attention, bunch them altogether within a one-to-three-hour time period.

While this is not really parallel processing, it will provide you with a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction that you are able to finish these minor chores.


5) Give your mind the opportunity to relax and wander freely.

Sometimes, when you get too focused on the task at hand (known as Focused Mode Thinking), you find your mind hitting a roadblock.

If you find yourself unable to find a solution to a problem that you are working on, switch to doing a mundane, mindless task like washing dishes, getting a quick snack, or taking a short walk.

Doing so switches your mind into Diffuse Mode Thinking so that your thoughts are allowed to roam freely.

Not only will this relax your mind so that you can resume your focus on your task, it may also provide you with the answer that you are searching for because your mind wanders through certain areas which you think are not related to the problem you are trying to solve.


6) Avoid multitasking in situations that require your focus and attention.

There are times when we do a report or a project while listening to music or the noise from a TV set.

You consider the act of listening as a “mindless” task.

But let’s say you are helping your Mum in the kitchen and you suddenly remember that you need to study an important chapter in your textbook for a test tomorrow.

Don’t try to study and help out in the kitchen at the same time.

It just won’t happen.

Instead, finish your kitchen chores pronto and then tell your mum you need to study.


The truth of multitasking is that it is an unavoidable part of life. It is something you do in school and at work. HOWEVER, if you are to accomplish with success the tasks that you have in a day, minimise rapid switching from one task to another and just simply focus on finishing one task before moving on to the next.


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