The photo above isn't one I shot, but one I found on a Google image search for "multitasking." (It comes from Scientific American Blogs.) I selected it because (1) she's got curly hair (and I'm always pro-curly) and (2) it's from an article called, "No, Women Can't Multitask Either." The "either" got me thinking. Why would anybody think that a person (of any sex) could simultaneously perform multiple functions that use the same part of the brain or body? I've never thought that.
When most people talk about multitasking and why it's a bad idea, they're considering two actions that demand the same kind of attention, usually both language-related. Most people can't process two different conversations at the same time, whether those conversations are written, spoken, sung, in-person, on television, or any combination of those. To be even more specific, people can't successfully do the following at the same time:
- listen to music with lyrics and read/do homework
- watch a television show and read/do homework
- scan social media and read/do homework
- be in a room with people who are talking and read/do homework
Or, for the non-students:
- listen to somebody and read (from a computer or phone or book)
- pay attention at a meeting and read (from a computer or phone or book)
- watch television or a movie and talk on the phone
- read the mail and listen to one's partner's words
Do you see the pattern? To pay attention to anything with words involved, a person needs to focus on only those words. Students, in particular, who think they can study vocabulary, for example, while singing along to the latest hit, are just wrong.
That said, I completely understand the urge to get things done, to try to cram more into one's day. Even when the world needs to shut down, we often feel and are busy. There's a lot to do and only so many hours to get things done. If we want a little down time at the end of the day, we need to pack in the to-do list earlier. I hear you.
I do think there are projects we can double up to good effect. Some tasks are complementary because they use different parts of the brain or body. Here are a few examples of cases in which doing two things at the same time improves performance (or at least doesn't make it worse) in both:
- I love to listen to podcasts while I walk the dog or go for a jog. The podcasts keep my brain busy while my motion keeps my body busy. I can stay in motion much longer because I'm keeping my mind away from the exercise.
- At meetings, I knit. I can listen more fully because the part of my brain that likes to be in motion is kept calm and active. Nothing about knitting requires me to use the language part of my brain, so I'm able to process people's comments completely.
- While I do "arms toning" exercises on the Peloton app (note that I don't own one of their bikes), I stand on one foot for alternate minutes. Even though the workout focuses on my arms and shoulders, I'm also demanding that my core and legs work on balance. This move doesn't take away anything from the effort of my arms, but it adds a layer to the workout.
- While I cook, I often watch Netflix shows or movies. So far, I haven't accidentally put in a tablespoon of cayenne pepper when the recipe asks for a teaspoon, so I think I'm doing okay with this. (If you want to make my husband laugh, ask him about the mixup with the chili. In a word, spicy!)
- When I need to wait in line for anything, I read a book. Waiting in line often feels like wasted time, even though it's a cornerstone of living among others. I try to have a book with me at all times in case the waiting takes longer than anticipated.
Can you think of other examples of actions that are either better when done together, or at least not discernibly worse? Alternately, do you have a funny story of a time you tried to do two things at once but failed in one or both? Please share your ideas in the comments. I'm always eager to hear about people's life efficiency hacks.