How to Multitask

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The multitaskers perceived that they performed better, because their brains were more stimulated, but in every single study they performed worse. — Chris Bailey

When you are in a hurry, you are in danger. — airplane pilot’s adage

There’s an old Buddhist story where a businessman visits a Zen temple and says to the Master, “I need to become enlightened. How long will it take?” The old Roshi answers, “A minimum of one year.” The businessman says, “That’s way too long! I have a company to run.” The Roshi replies, “In that case, it’ll take five years.”

Many of us are busy and harried, and we cast about for productivity tools to help us get more done in less time. One of the most tempting techniques is multitasking, or doing several things at once. Pretty soon we’re driving while shaving and talking on the phone and texting and grabbing quick sips of coffee. It’s exciting! We’re getting things done.

Except we aren’t. Our brains are poorly suited to thinking about more than one topic at a time. It may feel as if we’re accomplishing more, but in fact we’re performing worse.

Yet we’ve seen people do multiple things simultaneously with apparent success. And, after all, we can walk and talk at the same time. Brush our teeth and listen to the news. Play the piano with both hands.

The piano: you read the music while managing keys simultaneously with both left and right hands. Heck, it’s like those super-geniuses who can write two separate sentences at the same time, one from each hand, on a whiteboard!

But it takes time to learn a new piece: you begin to memorize phrases and sections so they become automated as you study the next segments. Basically, you’re transforming each section into “brushing teeth”, where you don’t have to think about it anymore.

If you’re going to multitask, you must do it deliberately. Take the time now to automate small physical tasks — turning them into consistent routines until they’re memorized — so your brain is free to concentrate. The effort will pay off later. Remember: multitask rote physical stuff, not mental stuff.

Here are the main ideas:

  • Do one mental task at a time: Resist the temptation to do multiple mental jobs at once. (Examples: reading and talking, talking and texting, conferencing and texting, anything and texting.) Instead, calmly go through your list, one item at a time. No panic! You’ll get there.
  • Automate physical activities like making copies, brewing coffee, changing your tie, driving. (But be careful! Nearly any activity can require full attention on occasion — especially driving — so stop with all the texting!) Go watch a good bartender mix drinks automatically while chatting with patrons, and you’ll get a sense of it.
  • Slow down to speed up: If you hurry, you tend to perform poorly. (Remember that time in the parking lot when some bigwig was waiting for you to pull out of your space so they could use it, and they honked their horn, and you rushed and dropped your keys under the car, and hit your head as you got in, and dropped the keys again, this time between the seats? You get the idea.) Anything you rush gets worse, including multitasking.

So now you’re at work, and your boss yells, “Where’s that report, Jenkins?! And get down to Receiving and find those overnights! Also, Simmons got sick, so grab someone to fill in!” You take a deep, calming breath and say:

“It’s on my list.”