As the exams are just around the corner, students often feel the pressure to multitask more and more. Before you do, however, consider that many experts believe multitasking to be a myth. Our brains cannot do parallel processing if it requires conscious awareness. Multitasking is really a rapid task switching. I’ve recently read an article in the series Multitasking (Part 2 of 3): The Mechanics of Multitasking by H. Les Brown, in which the author discusses the factors affecting our ability to switch tasks effectively. I often multitask more around the holidays, so now that Thanksgiving is over, I’ve decided to do some post-action review of my multitasking. Here are my lessons form the kitchen.
Those of you who have ever tried to bring milk to the boiling temperature, should be able to relate to the notion that true multitasking may not be possible. You can stare into the pot for the longest time waiting for those little bubbles to appear and nothing happens, but the moment you look away, your milk boils all over the stove. I guess, some activities are just not meant for multitasking.
If the “operational complexity” of the tasks (one of the factors in H. Les Brown’s model) is not high, it is easier to switch between them. If my teapot whistles while I am stirring something on the stove, I can put that teapot aside without much trouble. I can even gradually add flour while mixing the dough because the “operative rules” for those activities are pretty simple. However, I find it difficult to baste the turkey while trying to keep the dogs away from the hot oven. I guess, the “operative rules” are more complex here, and I don’t get much cooperation from the dogs either.
Another factor that enables us to determine when to shift tasks is “task dominance.” I can ignore the timer for a bit in order to finish peeling the potatoes, but I will drop those potatoes immediately if the smoke detector goes off.
“Task familiarity” allows for a quick switching because we can usually perform the habitual actions without much thought. There is a downside to it though: I sometimes put the ice-cream into the refrigerator instead of the freezer and the cheese into the bread bin without much thought. If we don’t pay attention to those rote activities, we can get inappropriate results.
When I have various dishes cooking simultaneously, I am forced to switch tasks more often with an increased chance of an error. This relates to the “response stimulus interval”, which is the time between one activity and the next “perceptual cue” that invites us to shift tasks. “Haste makes waste,” as the saying goes.
So, what should we do to perform tasks effectively and efficiently?
- Plan and prioritize. List things that need to be done, determine which ones are more urgent, and focus on those tasks. Sometimes, it is beneficial to switch tasks. I like to attack a problem in multiple sessions, for example. I think about it for a while and then I let it go and do something else. Occasionally, the solution comes when I least expect it. You need to decide in advance when such strategy is appropriate.
- Eliminate the distractions. Remember those perceptual cues that invite us to switch the tasks? Limit them if you can. Turn off your new email notification unless you really need it. Let your voice mail to pick up the call if you are busy with something important. And don’t turn on that TV, it’s not just the background noise.
- It’s not true that you can never do several things simultaneously. You can combine conscious tasks with activities that do not require you to focus. I like to think and conceptualize while walking my dogs. You’ve probably heard that taking a hot shower can stimulate production of good ideas, probably because people are more relaxed. Listening to Baroque music like Mozart while studying can improve recall. Find the combinations that work for you.
- Be mindful of what you are doing if you want to accomplish more. Kathy Sierra of Creating Passionate Users addresses the benefits of mindfulness in her post Your brain on multitasking. Also, check out her follow-up post Multitasking makes us stupid? on the dangers of media multitasking. Aren’t we all guilty of it?