With so many things going on, we now tend to multitask. You may think you’re skilled at juggling tasks, but chances are you aren’t working on two things at the same time.
To demonstrate, let’s suppose that:
- You’re driving in an area you don’t know yet. This makes you move slower than usual. The satnav tells you something in its impersonal tone and right then your smartphone rings. Obviously, this prevails on you perceiving the satnav’s instructions. After some gasps, you answer. On the phone someone speaks in another language: this is that phone call from abroad you were waiting for. In the meantime, you got lost, keeping on driving round the roundabout you arrived at.
- You are in a meeting and your phone vibrates in your pocket. There’s no explicit rule in the company or code in the meetings that prevents you from reading the text that just arrived while your boss was talking – so, you read it, that’s why you just missed what your boss said directly to you.
- Your son is speaking to you while you are focused on your electronic sheet, working on the family budget. You’re used to talking in your head while counting and typing on the keyboard. So, you realised someone was talking to you only after a while, as your expenses column on the sheet was yelling in your brain.
- You’re in line, waiting for your turn in a public office. You’re daydreaming, shutting off your contact with the external world: your favourite beach, with its colours and sounds, is right in front of your mind’s eye and you don’t notice the little smile rising on your face. Everything fades away when someone touches your shoulder as the line is proceeding to the desk and you have to move ahead.
Real-life experiences, right? This is the confirmation that we can’t juggle more than one cognitive task at the same time and with decent performance. If you think that it’s not true in your case, take one of these available tests here and watch how most people perform here.
The illusion of superpowers
For those who think they’re multitasking anyway, let’s make this point clear: it all depends on the time frame used as a reference. In fact, ‘simultaneous’ multitasking is not possible. When we’re referring to cognitive load, our brains don’t make simultaneity possible.
Our prefrontal cortex, to be precise, is constantly committed to understanding, recalling, filtering sensory inputs, connecting information, memorising, inhibiting harmful impulses, integrating, and learning. Each of these processes involves thousands of neural circuits, neurotransmitters, and electrical activities competing with each other. And any of these single processes must end before another one starts.
On the other hand, if we think we can deal with more tasks by quickly switching from one to another, then this is possible. We simply don’t realise these are managed in sequence, though very fast. Our conscious cognitive activities are necessarily sequential in the brain. We are in fact ‘one finish-one start tasking’.
We fools are losing our brains
Besides the decreasing of quality in performance, trying to do multitasking has also been found to cause structural damages to our brain, worsening the global situation.
A study from Sussex University testing people who habitually use two devices simultaneously (for example, typing on chats while watching or listening to TV), discovered that there were some less dense brain areas in these subjects. Literally, brain tissue is lost, especially from the anterior cingulate cortex, crucial for attention, empathy, and social intelligence.
We could think of multitasking as the typical activity of someone forced to always look around and never rest, exactly the same as prey in any animal ecosystem. And we, the prey human beings, if we play this role for too long, are permanently stressed, with a long list of obvious health consequences. Without going too far, when we are overstimulated, we are less focused, have less memory, are less organised, and more anxious.
- Develop routines. Anything that initially required attention and, after some repetitions, requires almost zero is like gold for us! It means that we have started unconscious patterns. Think about when we first started driving a car and how we drive it now. For this, we have to thank the basal ganglia, brain nuclei located under the cortex and very densely connected with many other brain structures. They are involved in the regulation of movements, especially the repetitive ones. So, outline how and when to make important calls during the day; how and when to process emails; and how and when to work on documents.
- Smart breaks. On average, a human being can stay focused on one thing for no longer than 30 minutes. Let’s try to leverage this and take purposeful breaks. Or alternate activities with a clear plan in mind and take into account the attention span of each.
- Planning our distractions in advance. We can treat ourselves to some alternative activity by giving it a time limit. We can do this several times throughout the day. For example, in the morning we could allow ourselves 25 minutes on social media, coffee, and some news. We can repeat the same before dinner.
Technology can help in automation
For instance, we could establish rules for emails: assign a colour code to the senders of your received emails, which is linked to their importance and urgency for dealing with their emails. And we can always turn the email program off and decide when to open it! And this can be done with any electronic device, of course.
Mario Maresca is an Executive and Systemic Team Coach, dealing with a wide range of top and middle managers in an intercultural environment.