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When to Do Multitasking and When to Avoid It

When to Do Multitasking and When to Avoid It


You've probably heard that multitasking isn't good for your productivity but do you know why that is?
Today we're going to explore the reasons and by the end of this article you're gonna have a good understanding of exactly why multi-tasking is a tempting yet ultimately ineffective strategy in most situations.



What's the price of gold?

Well, buy it! Tell my mom that I'm coming Wednesday. Sorry, next Thursday. Actually, October, okay? Finally, and possibly contrary to your expectations, we'll be talking about the times at which multi-tasking does make sense. That's right, it turns out that multitasking doesn't entirely deserve the bad rap it's gotten from people like productivity bloggers and management consultants who often say that multitasking doesn't exist. Multi-tasking does exist.


What doesn't exist is multi-focus.

Thank of your brain like a computer, or to be more precise, a very specific kind of computer and one that we haven't seen in probably 10 or 15 years. A computer with a single-core processor. Now, most modern computers have multi-core processors. The current lineup of 15 inch MacBook Pros have quad-core processors meaning processors with four cores. And even my aging iPhone 6S has a processor with two cores.

With multiple cores comes the ability to truly multi-task. Each core could run operations independently. However, within each core, only one calculation can be executed at any given time.


So how are you still able to run multiple programs at once?

How was it that you could be playing RuneScape in one window talking to a friend in MSN Messenger in another and, in still another, be writing an article script full of references that show everyone just how much of an old man you've truly become? How do you, fellow kids?

Well, it's pretty simple.
The processors switch back and forth between multiple tasks. But since they could manage millions of instructions per second they created the illusion of true multi-tasking.

Now unfortunately the human brain was not designed to switch back and forth between tasks quickly. It takes a little while for your brain to truly lock-on to any task that requires a high level of concentration or active attention.

So when you switch your attention away to something else you incur what's called a cognitive switching penalty.

Not only do you lose the time that it takes to switch from one task to the other and then back again later you also lose a lot more time while your brain tries to get itself back into the flow state. And if you're switching tasks often your brain forever stays in the shallow end of the focus pool.

Multiple studies over the past few decades have demonstrated this inconvenient biological truth and, what's more, they've also demonstrated that multi-taskers make more mistakes which is something that I was reminded of just last night when I decided to stream some Enter the Gungeon on Twitch. I have put over 100 hours into that game but because I was simultaneously trying to answer questions and be entertaining on the stream my skill level dropped like a rock.

So the science is clear and it's backed up by experience. Committing to a single target of focus will make you far more effective in the long run. Once you enter the flow state on that single task you'll work more quickly and your creative and logical abilities will be fully unlocked.


So with all that being said how can you avoid the temptation to multi-task?

Well, one thing that's been helping me a lot lately is doing all of my writing and my research on iPad Pro. When I first got it a couple of weeks ago I was initially annoyed that it wasn't quite as good at doing a lot of things that I already did on my MacBook Pro. Copying and pasting was a lot slower a lot of the keyboard shortcuts I normally use didn't work. I mean, I could complain for hours.

But then I saw these inconveniences for what they truly are. Useful restrictions. Yes, my iPad sucks for answering emails, and it sucks for editing video, and it sucks for lots of things, but, it is very good for writing, which is the most important work that I do, and it's the work that I'm most resistant to doing because writing's hard. So now every single morning I take my iPad to the coffee shop and I leave my MacBook at home.

And there I do at least one full Pomodoro of writing. On 3/4 of the screen I have Evernote and I basically write whatever comes to mind and on the other quarter of the screen, I have an app called Tide which functions as my Pomodoro timer.

Now you definitely don't need an expensive iPad to get the same benefits. My friend john back in college actually did the exact same thing with an old iPod Touch and a little stand, and a Bluetooth keyboard. And of course, you could do the exact same thing with a notebook and a pen as well as long as your handwriting muscles haven't atrophied.

If you do have to use a computer you can use an app like Cold Turkey Writer which locks down your computer and lets you do nothing but write until you've hit a word count goal or you could use apps like Freedom or FocalFilter to block websites that you find distracting.

Whatever you use the key is to lock down your options. With all that being said there are times when multitasking can be useful and I want to give you two examples. The first is any situation where neither of the tasks that you're doing requires intense concentration and where one or more of them is something that you've mastered to the point where it's essentially become muscle memory.


Cooking is a great example.

Through practice, I've memorized several recipes and I've gotten pretty good at a lot of the basic techniques like cutting vegetables with proper guide hand technique of course, and sauteing onions. This means that at least when I'm cooking a recipe I'm familiar with I can easily handle multiple things going on at once. I can have the onions on the stove I can be chopping kale I can keep the timing for the garlic bread in the back of my head and I could also easily listen to audiobooks while I do it all.

But if I'm making a new recipe I can't listen to audiobooks and I'm not nearly as good at managing multiple dishes at once. The moment that an unfamiliar process or a new technique enters the equation it is back to single-tasking for me.

Now aside from that the one other situation where it can be useful to multi-task is when you wanna background to process something in your head. As Dr. Barbara Oakley points out in her book A Mind for Numbers, your brain has two different modes of processing. ''The focused mode and the diffused mode.''

When you walk away from a project after focusing on it for a while and kinda just let it simmer in the background you're entering the diffused mode and when you do this new insights can pop up that wouldn't have otherwise popped up if you remained focused. My friend john actually brought this point up to me while I was writing this article because right now he's designing an algorithm that'll suggest articles to people on my website.

And he mentioned that after working on it intensely for a while he took a break to go fight an easy monster in Monster Hunter at which point some new insights popped up into the back of his head about how to improve it.

So to recap all of this when you're faced with a task that requires careful attention focus only on that one, singular task. Avoid the temptation to multi-task.

And if it's hopeful choose tools that restrict your options and cut down on that temptation like website blockers or less capable computers.

Finally at other times like when you wanna save time on tasks you've already mastered or when you wanna take advantage of that diffused mode of thinking use multi-tasking as the context-specific tool that it is.

Hopefully, you learned something from this article, and if you found it useful definitely share it with others and comment below.

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