How to multi-task

Multi-tasking is doing more than one thing at a time. Most people these days do this a lot, particularly teenagers. For example, you might be watching TV whilst sending text messages on your phone, or listening to music whilst writing a document on your laptop. Web-browsing and email checking are also big contributors to our multi-tasking habits. When surfing the web it is easy to open up multiple windows, jumping back and forth between reading different webpages and checking email.

Sometimes multi-tasking can be useful, but too often it’s just dividing our attention or is a form of procrastination or time-wasting.

Multi-tasking is fine if the tasks are easy, but if they are more complex or important, then we might be better off concentrating more on one of them at a time. Trying to do too many things at once can lead to low levels of attention, poor concentration, impaired memory and sometimes even faulty decision-making.

The issue is that multi-tasking is really a myth. When we think we’re multi-tasking, we’re actually doing what psychologists call task-switching, this is rapidly switching back and forth between two things. The trouble is, no matter how good you think you are at it, you are always dividing up your attention levels. In other words, you’re always going to be operating at less than your best if you are multi-tasking.

This problem is greatest when you are doing something that needs all the brain-power you can muster. For example, problem-solving, decision-making, or coming up with creative ideas. These levels of thinking usually suffer most if you are trying to multi-task. What makes the difference? It’s not just how hard the task is, it’s the types of task you are trying to combine that make the difference. Different parts of your brain are involved in processing different types of information. For example, there are language parts of your brain which are involved in understanding song lyrics, or helping you type a report, and there are different parts of the brain which are involved in counting, coordinating the movement of your body, or making decisions. The trick with how to multi-task is this:

Don’t do two tasks simultaneously which require the same type of skill.

For example, don’t try to listen to music with lyrics at the same time as trying to read or write. You will be dividing up the attention of the language part of your brain. Or (more obviously!) don’t try to dial a number on your cell-phone whilst driving, as you will be dividing up the attention of the movement part of your brain.

Another good way to multi-task (if you really must!) is to combine an easy task with a harder task. For example, ironing clothes whilst listening to a complex audio-book. In fact, audio-books are a great way to consume a book whilst also doing some simple movement task; you could listen to one whilst exercising on a treadmill or exercise bike, or whilst going for a walk. Instrumental music (i.e. music without lyrics) can be really useful as you can listen to it (if, for instance, you need to block out other sounds around you), whilst you are reading or writing. Lastly, try to concentrate on one task at a time if they are complex, thought-demanding tasks, and take a short break inbetween each.

Multi-tasking can be time-saving, and by following these tips you should be able to accomplish it without