I’ve spent the past few days in a mental frenzy. Have you ever just felt like there are a thousand and one tabs open in your head? Well, yeah. That’s how I’ve felt. And it’s especially weird as work has been light all week and I’ve had an ungodly amount of relatively free time.
Yet it seemed like I couldn’t focus on anything, even while trying to be productive.
What I eventually discovered was, perhaps, the biggest irony. So let’s start at the beginning.
Multitasking is not real
This seems obvious enough — divided attention isn’t very useful. Who wants to be on a date where the other person is constantly (or even occasionally, for that matter) glued to their phone? But you and I can admit there’s a difference between knowing something and knowing something. In a hustle-ridden culture, productivity is pushed but often to a fault.
While it’s fun to shuffle between five separate chat-boxes on Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp, watch a YouTube video and eat lunch all at the same time, research shows otherwise.
Can our Brains actually have many tabs at once?
Well, technically, yes. However, what is usually mistaken for multitasking is actually a concept called serial tasking/task switching. It’s essentially rapidly alternating from one activity to the other. It’s like constantly switching between green and red lights for multiple things. Not hard to see how that can suck for a car behind the traffic lights.
And while this seems like an admirable trait that can come in handy for those pesky multiple deadlines, it’s not difficult to see how this can become a problem if it’s then the default.
“Multitasking is like constantly pulling up a plant. This kind of constant shifting of your attention means that new ideas and concepts have no chance to take root and flourish,” - Barbara Oakley
And while the cost of switching might be a fraction of a second, this can ironically add up to unproductive time use.
But it’s also easy to see how this can lead to burnout.
🧠 In case you missed last week’s issue on the Neuroscience of a Déjà Vu, click here.
There’s really no such thing as multitasking?
To understand this fully, let’s look at our fave — the brain.
As seen on brain scans done, some of the heavy-weight guys involved in doing tasks are the frontoparietal control network, the dorsal attention network, and the ventral attention network, Let’s call them F, D and V, for short.
When the brain identifies a task, F swings into action, mediated by D, to select the information that is relevant, whether internal or external. How does V come in? Simply put, it helps to capture attention, coning down on information that is relevant to one task but irrelevant to — and thus disruptive of performance of — another task.
Easy to see how things can become muddled up when we constantly go back and forth.
This suggests that when we task-switch, more neural processing is required as the mind has to be brought back to the new task’s representation while allocating attention to information that is relevant to perform the new task. We then lose the efficiency that comes from staying focused on a single task.
“Multitasking is a mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously.” Dr. Edward Hallowell
This is one of the reasons I’ve never understood the need for pop-up notifications because it clearly means I was focusing on one thing prior.
This week, I guess I’d been too caught up, trying to do multiple things at once by task switching rapidly. Instead of simply focusing on one thing at a time as I moved through my to-do list. And this was more apparent as I rapidly switched between offline tasks and my phone. Guilty, your honour.
Let’s face it, multitask—I mean, task switching is still something we’re going to have to deal with.
And all hope isn’t entirely lost. Some research has shown that the human brain might be trainable.
But for now, the key is to accept that we can only really do one thing at a time.
And so, I write this as I vibe to Fireboy DML’s Like I Do (which I recently stumbled upon), and I guess maybe some forms of multitasking might not be too shabby ;)
Let me know your thoughts in the comments or hit the Reply button!