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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Don't Try to Multitask, It's Impossible

You might think you're really good at multitasking or you might know someone that seems to multitask well. Well you're not and you don't.

It's not possible.

Your brain cannot multitask. Period. You consciously focus on one task at a time. That's it. No more.

When you attempt to multitask, you are actually switching between tasks (sometimes very rapidly). But your brain must disengage from one task and engage another task at every switch. This reduces the overall efficacy of all the tasks.

I know, you're still shouting at me, "Noooooooo, that's impossible! I'll never join you!"

Before you get mad and jump off a radio tower down a tube, let me explain.*

What is a task? This is probably the most important part of this discussion. A task is something you do that requires mental attention. Listening to music isn't a task because it can be easily ignored. Our brains are adept at filtering out information that's not task-critical, like music, background conversations at a coffee shop, the smell of the rendering plant near your house, the sound of the airport that sends jets over you daily and most activities that you've learned to do automatically.

For example, it's not a task for me to type the letters in this sentence. But when I was in 9th grade learning from Mrs. Van Gilder, it took all of my attention to place each finger on the keyboard. Now it's automated, it doesn't require any attention and is therefore not a task. I took care of the task of learning to touch type 20 years ago so that I don't have to worry about it now.

What is attention? When you focus on something, even a little bit, you use your attention. You have a finite amount of attention you can use at any one time. Your brain tries to help by removing extraneous details so you can get on with your life. This is why the dirty laundry can fade into the background. It's familiar once it's been sitting for a week and your brain just ignores it.

The thing that takes up the majority of your attention is the task you're working on. You can maintain a situational awareness that lets you keep several tasks active at once. For example, when I worked at the Mermaid Coffee Company I was able to take drink orders, cook food, brew coffee, get pastries and send baristas on break - all at the same time. How did I do this? I had enough attention that I could switch rapidly between tasks and I'd mastered enough of the tasks that they no longer required my attention.

That made it look a lot like I was multitasking. But I wasn't. I was multiattentioning and quickly switching between tasks.

When you try to multitask without first dealing with attention and learning your skills, then you will stumble and probably fail.

How have you experienced the limits of your brain when trying to multitask?

*This is a reference to The Empire Strikes Back. Watch it. Now.

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