Andrea Azzola

Technology, Personal Development and Financial Independence

Humans and Multitasking

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Multitasking means the capability of executing multiple tasks concurrently. The multitasking concept find its origins in the computer industry. Nowadays consumer computers, phones, tablets are perfectly capable of running multiple logics in the same time window, they've become so good at this that some company are already focusing toward the next big step, anticipatory computing (eg: Google Now). Assisted multitasking brings huge benefits in terms of productivity, some computations can be anticipated and so them results, which is a huge win for everyone. But other than devices, can, our brain, multitask? The answer is apparently, no.

Subconscious mind

Technically speaking, we are constantly multitasking. Breathing, like heartbeat, belongs to a subset of tasks handled by our subconscious mind and these tasks represent one exception.

Yes, sometimes you do drive home without even noticing while being in a call at the same time right? Isn't that multitasking? So and so. Our brain is capable of learning and when it comes to routine tasks, it is so good at perfecting them that so they can become part of our subconscious mind.

But conscious and subconscious are not black or white areas, there are "shades of gray". While breathing is perfectly automatic, driving still requires a little bit of attention (hopefully, we dedicate a good amount). How much, varies from individual to individual and it's a matter of habits, brainpower and lots of other more scientific factors.

Task switching

For human multitasking however we usually refer to our capability of executing intensive tasks concurrently, such as sustaining a pretty dense conference call, while drawing a flow chart for a different project. That's, according to science, simply not possible.

The thing is: brain can become pretty good at switching tasks, so good that can give you a perception of multitasking, but it's not what's happening, it's an illusion. Under the hood, it's like in the cartoons making process, when sheets are switched so fast that they gave you a sense of motion, but in the matter of facts, each of those are a single static drawings well distinguished between each other.

Lots of us are fantastic "task switchers", "perceived multitaskers" and that's nontheless a good quality because the industry and our personal lifes demands it, but sustaining the illusion requires a huge toll on our energy, on our stress levels and subsequently, on our life quality.

How to deal with it

So the intent of this post is not discourage people from trying to achieve multitasking, but devoting energies to single, atomic, subsequent tasks, can be extremely productive! In fact, by allowing the allocation of all of our resources, "computational power and memory" to a single tasks, we get things done much faster. In a fast task switching context there's also a substancial factor that brings our brain resources to a faster drain and guess what it is, the task switching process! That's a task too!

A few advices I can derive from personal experience are:

  1. Take the risk, block distractions as soon as circumnstances allow it and prove your method, to yourself and to your boss if necessary. 
  2. That stuff that knocks to you door continuosly? move it in your Inbox/Queue and, if not super urgent, fall back to resuming what you were doing. You can always review new stuff later, as soon as you finish. The book Gettings Things Done from David Allen could give you some great advice in that area.
  3. Your subconscious can become even more of a resource, practice tasks you would want to be easier for you and your brain.

Further Readings