There is an old joke that women are better multi taskers than men. My girlfriend tried to tell me this joke while we were out walking once, but I didn’t understand it until I stood still 🙂
On a more serious note though, is it actually possible to multi task?
The research seems to suggest not.
As the video above shows, many people claim to be able to multi-task, such as by having a conversation while ironing and drinking a cup of tea, or replying to emails on a phone while walking to buy lunch.
However, there are really only two types of people who do multiple activities:
- Task Switchers: Who rapidly shift focus from one task to another
- Supertaskers: Who are actually able to focus on and respond to more than one specific challenge for a period of time
The researchers who conducted this study found that only about 2.5% of people are able to act as supertaskers. Everyone else was just experiencing task switching, which results in significantly lower performance on each of the tasks the person is trying to accomplish because the brain needs to readjust each time it switches.
This can be an especially big problem for people working on large creative or innovative projects, since often there are new ideas or experimental results coming at you all of the time. This can result in a slew of distractions, each fighting for your attention. And while you might not feel like your performance is affected, in reality trying to work on multiple challenges results in each one taking longer overall to finish, likely at a lower quality than if you had been able to focus on it.
And while you might not feel like your performance is affected, in reality trying to work on multiple challenges results in each one taking longer overall to finish, likely at a lower quality than if you had been able to focus on it. Entrepreneurs and startups are especially susceptible to this, often resulting in unexpected delays before they execute their ideas.
As far as the people who are able to act as supertaskers, often it is only in very specific sets of tasks which they have been able to practice. The more you practice specific activities, the more your brain reinforces the pathways used during these challenges, making them more efficient and eventually allowing the brain to almost complete them on autopilot.
On the flip side though, this can make it much harder for those people to then react to changes in the same challenge in the future.
So no matter who you are, remember that it’s better to focus on whatever you’re working on than trying to do everything at once.
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