If you’re like me, there’s more than one glowing rectangle in your life. A lot more. On the average day, I might be writing a blog on my laptop, playing a game on my Kindle Fire, and earning Swagbucks on my smartphone, all while trying to crochet the blanket I said would be done two months ago.
If I’m not careful, though, I end up with the yarn laying on my lap, while playing Mahjong on the laptop, Two Dots on the Fire, and Sudoku on my phone. . . all at the same time.
You might say I am addicted to multitasking.
I doubt I’m the only one, either.
Is Multitasking Really Worth It?
Multitasking may seem like the best way to get more done in less time, but it comes with its own peculiar hazards.
For instance, a lot of people try to multitask in their relationships. They’ll carry on a conversation with one person while texting another person and sending stickers to someone else on Facebook. But trying to pay attention to all of the people in your life just makes each of them feel ignored. Even high-powered execs have caught on to how detrimental this can be. Lately, I’ve caught myself doing this sort of thing a few more times than I’d like to, and it made me take a step back and check my habits.
Furthermore, what we think of as “multitasking” may be a complete misconception. According to Earl Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, the brain doesn’t focus on many tasks at once, it rapidly switches attention back and forth between different tasks. Think about how your computer can switch between all the programs that are open in the desktop in quick succession. We use what scientists call our “executive system,” which switches tasks in our brain like a computer might. This means that multitasking can’t be about doing as many things at the same time as we can, trying to squeeze more things into our time than it can handle.
What Multitasking Can Do FOR Us!
A healthy understanding of multitasking, then, is one where different tasks work in tandem, rather than compete for attention. Here are a few instances where multitasking is actually beneficial:
1) Multitasking if you’re a kinesthetic learner.
As a kinesthetic learner, I like to be doing something with my hands. I like to knit or crochet while I read assignments for coursework. Having something physical to do – besides just taking notes – helps me to remember the material better. It’s not just me, either. Some interesting research has explored the link between simple, repetitive actions like doodling and focus; the doodle (or crochet pattern or what-have-you) often acts a sort of memory postcard, triggering information it doesn’t explicitly contain. So add a simple activity to your research or class time and see if it doesn’t improve your retention.
2) Multitasking when one task doesn’t require any attention.
I mentioned before that I often have a Swagbucks app running on my smartphone. This is because the SBTV app doesn’t require much attention, besides looking down every once in a while to make sure it’s still running. I love this type of multitasking, because I’m literally earning money for doing practically nothing, while I’m (hopefully) doing something productive in the meantime!
3) Multitasking while doing dis-similar tasks.
The previously mentioned NPR article states that “similar tasks compete to use the same part of the brain,” which is why it’s difficult to talk to someone over the phone while typing an email. If you’ve tried that, you probably know that the conversations tend to merge. On the other hand, if you’re doing something completely unrelated, like knitting or Zentangling while you talk, there’s very little likelihood that you will say “knit one, perl one” while talking about the Red Sox with your dad.
Are You Addicted to Multitasking?
If you have gotten to the point where you feel like you have to be doing something at all times, you know you have a problem. It becomes an issue when that penchant turns into feeling like you need to have more than one screen that you’re trying to pay attention to at the same time. This might be a good time to get a grip on your multitasking habit.
Start by taking an inventory of how many devices you use and what tasks you work on on a daily basis. Think about how often you’re using more than one device or performing similar tasks at the same time. If you realize that you are spending a lot of time on more than one device or similar task at a time, you may want to think about modifying your routine.
How to Get a Grip on Multitasking
If you find you’re addicted to multitasking, here are a couple of things to try:
1) Get accountability
Ask someone you’re around a lot – a roommate, a family member – to keep an eye on you. If they see you trying to do too much at once, they can keep you accountable. Just remember to be nice when they point it out to you!
2) Pare it down
Try to restrict yourself to one active screen or type of task at a time. Make sure that if you are multitasking, you are doing different types of tasks.
3) If electronics are your weakness, Unplug!
Stepping away from your electronics is probably the best way to break the dependence. Schedule an hour to walk away from all your electronics a few times a week and see what kind of difference it makes in your creativity. (We’ll be exploring the Unplug Hour in greater detail in a future post, so subscribe to our RSS feed or our newsletter to make sure you don’t miss it!)
4) Stick with it!
Decide which methods will work best for you and try it for a week or two. Stick with it and you can break your multitasking addiction!