"To do two things at once is to do neither." (Publilius Syrus)
I am going to suggest that the best way to multitask is to SINGLETASK - in other words, to stop trying to do many things at once, and just do one.
REASON 1 - THE BRAIN IS BUILT TO DO ONE THING AT A TIME
When we multitask, we are asking our brain to keep switching between different activities. The problem is this: every activity has a set of 'rules' which our brain activates. If we keep changing tasks, our brain uses up a lot of energy 'reactivating' the rules for each separate task. Imagine, for instance, trying to have two arguments at once, on two separate phones. Every time you re-engage in the opposite ear, you have to spend energy reminding yourself what is going on. Much of this activity goes on in the prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain which is much more effective when not pressurized by multitasking.
REASON 2 - YOU ARE EMOTIONALLY VULNERABLE WHEN YOU MULTITASK
If you want to upset someone, just make them do one thing, and then keep interrupting them with another! Why does this cause upset? Well, we work best when we are working towards a single goal. Our emotions are designed to be peaceful when we are concentrating on a single goal, and then ecstatic when we achieve it! Linked to this, our emotions are also designed to choose anger when our goals are frustrated. So, if you multitask, you are interrupting your own internal single-goal mechanism, and you are almost guaranteed to make yourself angry!
REASON 3 - YOUR LIFE WILL BE LESS CLEAR IF YOU MULTITASK
We use perspective to gain clarity in our lives, and help us see situations clearly. And perspective needs stability. If we keep changing our activity, then we are constantly moving our viewpoint, and we will find it hard to think clearly about important issues. Partners of workaholics often complain that their partner doesn't seem to 'see' them, or understand their issues. The workaholic doesn't sit still for long enough to see the person or thing in front of them.
So here is an exercise you can do:
1. Get a piece of paper, and write on it what you are going to do next. Choose an activity that takes about 5 minutes.
2. Only do that thing, until it is finished. Then go back to your piece of paper, and tick the item.
3. Choose another activity, and write it down.
4. Only do that thing, until it is finished… and so on.
In the beginning, you may notice how easily distracted you are. It can be surprisingly difficult to just do one thing at a time. But, with practice, you will find you get better at focusing on a single thing. And you may find it quite pleasurable, because your emotional brain, as discussed above, is designed to focus on something, complete it, and then focus on the next thing. You will find your mind getting more peaceful while doing something, and more joyful when you finish each small task!
Try the exercise on people as well. When someone wants to talk, give them your full attention for the next five minutes, and really concentrate on them. See if it has a positive effect. Try to notice what the benefits are.
This is half term week for me, and therefore life is constantly demanding from different directions - children, friends, work, household tasks… I am going to try to remember that, although my environment is trying to make me multitask, it is better to SINGLETASK!
SOME FURTHER READING: