That pigeons are better at multitasking than humans, as a recent study suggests, inspires little confidence that Homo Sapiens are really meant to do two or more things at once: Yet, in our open-officed, pushed-notification world — focusing on one task at hand is increasingly easier said than done.
If you have trouble tackling multiple tasks at once, you’re hardly alone: While some research suggests certain people’s brains are readily wired for multitasking, that research pegs the number of these super-brains at only roughly 2% of the population worldwide. For everyone else? The best way to finish something seems to be to focus on that task and that task alone, as psychologists and one neuroscientist who have studied the matter told Mic.
“I don’t think there’s any question that engaging in multiple tasks affects adversely primary task performance,” said David Sanbonmatsu, a professor of social psychology at the University of Utah. “If you’re trying to do multiple things at once, you’re not going to do the primary task well.”
(Think you’re in the special 2%? You may want to think again: Sanbonmatsu’s team has also found an inverse relationship between perceived multitasking ability and actual multitasking ability. In other words, the better you think you are at multitasking, the more likely it is that you aren’t so hot.)
Now before you lose hope — there is a catch. New research published this year from Columbia Business School finds creative workers may actually benefit from multitasking for a surprising reason: Task-switching helps you approach problems more innovatively, as you gain relief from the break provided. Perhaps unintuitively, “The brain doesn’t respond well to comfort,” said Adam Gazzaley, a neuroscientist and author of The Distracted Mind. Repetition makes you sluggish, and change is stimulative.
Whether you are trying to be a better multitasker, or your constantly buzzing phone has left you with little choice, it can actually pay off to embed small “nudges” in your daily schedule to juggle tasks more intelligently. Here’s what the research on multitasking suggests will help you maximize productivity.
1. Schedule your switches
People multitask almost compulsively, and this compulsion might have something to do with our brain telling us we’ve been working on the same thing for too long, Sanbonmatsu said.
“If I have a really challenging theoretical issue I’m trying to grapple with, I’ll start doing other stuff, or start trying to do multiple things simultaneously,” Sanbonmatsu said. “It’ll make me realize I’ve hit a block or there’s probably a reason why I’ve diverted my attention to other things.”
Indeed, a great deal of the research on multitasking, or task-switching, has focused on downsides. But as that Columbia paper found, switching between tasks promoted creative problem solving. To test their theory out, the researchers showed subjects an image of an object — like a paper clip — and asked for various ways the object could be used (like for holding two pieces of paper together, or for picking a lock). Subjects who were instructed to switch between two different objects actually came up with more flexible and novel uses than those who stayed focused on one single object.
Essentially, changing up what you work on throughout the day may reduce something called “cognitive fixation,” when you get stuck on a particular detail and miss the bigger picture. The classic example of cognitive fixation is the story of the Titanic, where people were so focused on trying to get away from the giant iceberg, they didn’t think to climb on top of it to survive.
One solution? If you’re given two big problems to solve before the end of the day, the researchers argue that the optimal way to work through them is to rotate consistently between the two, even if you’re switching every five minutes, according to a Harvard Business Review column. They also recommend scheduling breaks throughout the day, and not skipping lunch.
2. Slay your smartphone addiction
Task switching through social media feeds is a surefire way to get stuck in a “ludic loop” that sucks away precious time and keeps you at work longer. Unfortunately, it is tough to break the habit — as attention-hoarders in Silicon Valley have perfected the art of push notifications, “suggested” posts and other prompts that keep you from focusing on work.
And smartphone-enabled work communication platforms like email or instant message make ignoring your phone even harder. Researchers like Gazzaley and his Distracted Mind co-author Larry Rosen have said they believe smartphones are shrinking our ability to focus on one task at a time.
“As you go along merrily not checking your phone and not getting any notifications, your brain and your body are building up chemicals that are making you anxious,” Rosen said. “It’s sort of like FOMO, the anxiety of missing out, they don’t want to miss out on something important. These feeds fly by and every 15 minutes there are many more posts.”
Our attention spans are so degraded, Rosen said, he recommended weaning yourself off. To do that, silence and place your phone on your desk faced down and set a timer for 15 minutes. Rosen said it’s important that the phone is visible, so your brain knows it’s there, but also silenced and non-distracting. Once you get used to going 15 minutes without checking your phone, increase the window to 20 minutes, then 30.
Another thing that helps? Gazzaley said that of all of the possible remedies for an over-distracted mind, exercise has the strongest evidence as being effective. It does not need to be strenuous, he said, even quick walks can promote brain health and focus over time.
A great deal of the research on multitasking — or task-switching — has focused on downsides. That’s changing.
3. Know practice makes less imperfect
For all of multitasking’s dangers, it’s often unavoidable. Whether you’re an overextended assistant, an attorney with multiple clients, or parent with a sick kid — sometimes you have to walk and chew gum at the same time. The good news? Some research suggests multitasking is like any other skill, meaning it can be improved with practice.
In one paper, researchers simulated multitasking by having subjects listen for audio queues and look for visual queues simultaneously. They then broke them up into two groups, one of which spent three days doing a training regimen that still required multitasking, and a control group that got an unrelated training regiment focused solely on visual queues. For good measure, researchers also scanned everyone’s brains in an MRI.
They found the training regimen led to improvements, and the researchers isolated the neural network underlying task-switching — finding that these brain regions displayed less activity as the subjects practiced. This, they suggest, is a sign that processing information can become more efficient over time. In other words, the more you multitask similar activities, the better you’ll likely get at switching between the two productively.
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