Multitasking Can Increase Productivity — For Two Tasks, But Not Three

by John Soares on April 16, 2010

I don’t advocate multitasking for situations that require significant creativity — like writing; or when you are learning — listen up students!; or when you are engaged in a physical activity that requires detailed coordination and reaction — mountain climbing, for example.

But multitasking for everyday tasks can save you significant time and increase your productivity. You can do the dishes and talk on the phone at the same time. (Use a headset.)

A new study reported in the journal Science helps explain why we can do two things at once with little difficulty, but three tasks is too much. This LiveScience article summarizes the study’s findings:

…when faced with two tasks, a part of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex (MFC) divides so that half of the region focuses on one task and the other half on the other task. This division of labor allows a person to keep track of two tasks pretty readily, but if you throw in a third, things get a bit muddled.

“What really the results show is that we can readily divide tasking. We can cook, and at the same time talk on the phone, and switch back and forth between these two activities,” said study researcher Etienne Koechlin of the Université Pierre et Marie Curie in Paris, France. “However, we cannot multitask with more than two tasks.”

Some situations where I multitask:

  1. Driving while listening to educational audios
  2. Lifting weights while listening to educational audios
  3. Talking on the phone while doing stretching exercises
  4. Talking on the phone while cooking or cleaning
  5. Watching television while I massage my sweetheart Stephanie’s feet

And You?

In what situations does multitasking increase your productivity? In what situations should multitasking be avoided?

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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Stephanie Hoffman April 16, 2010 at 10:28 AM

As a workshop leader, multitasking is essential. While facilitating the discussion, I’m paying attention to the individuals, group dynamics, my posture, PowerPoint, room temperature, and if there’s enough coffee in the pots. Is this effective? I say yes! It certainly makes the experience more interesting for me (and hopefully the participants.)


2 John Soares April 16, 2010 at 10:57 AM

Yes, there are times when we are forced to multitask, and leading a workshop is definitely one of them.

However, I bet you have one primary task, usually speaking, and then you deal with the other tasks sequentially rather than all at once.


3 Stephanie Hoffman April 16, 2010 at 11:15 AM

You are probably right; however, it seems like my brain is taking in all of the stimulus at once.


4 John Soares April 16, 2010 at 12:12 PM

That’s likely because your brain jumps quickly from one task to the next.


5 Debbie @ Happy Maker April 16, 2010 at 2:36 PM

My Hubby always laughs at me when I am cooking, because that is when I take care of all of my phone calls. Thanks for the post now I can tell him that this is good. Maybe he will believe you. (He hate phones)
I think it comes down to using your hands for one thing and using your hearing for another. You can’t use the same tool for 2 different things at the same time should I say. Hope i explained that right.
.-= Debbie @ Happy Maker´s last blog ..Fiction Prescription can be a Secret to Happiness =-.


6 John Soares April 16, 2010 at 2:59 PM

Debbie, that’s an excellent way to multitask. I almost always do something else when I’m on the phone, either cooking, cleaning, stretching, or walking.


7 Mike Kirkeberg April 21, 2010 at 11:11 AM

One place I think multitasking should absolutely be avoided is while driving. Everyone gets short-shanged, especially the other drivers near by.
.-= Mike Kirkeberg´s last blog ..How to Respond to Anger – Tip 1 =-.


8 John Soares April 21, 2010 at 1:41 PM

Mike, I agree that much of the multitasking people do when driving — like talking on cell phones and eating burritos — is downright dangerous.

I listen to educational audios in my car, though. I feel I can pay full attention to driving and learn at the same time. However, most of the time I drive on rural roads with very little traffic. When I’m in a big city like San Francisco, I only drive, and then with great care.


9 Gail @ Support Small Business May 27, 2010 at 5:25 PM

The ability to multi-task varies greatly from person to person and is a skill you can develop. One of the best ways is by learning to read complex music scores such as those commonly used for classical piano.

When sight-reading written music you read several measures ahead of what your hands are playing and as many as eight linear strings of notes. On top of that the melody has to brought out from the background chording.

The easiest way to understand that is that each note in a chord or string of linear notes equals the voice of a separate singer in the choir. A conductor or pianist simultaneously has all parts and each line in their head including what they are currently hearing and what has not been sung or played yet.

This is possible because although we can learn to have many “channels” running all at once we also operate in the same way a computer does: by switching so quickly between many tasks that it APPEARS that we are doing more at once than we actually are.

Computers are interrupt driven and we can operate in interrupt mode too. While it DOES take longer to finish multiple tasks when they are all being done simultaneously each task may or may not take longer when accomplished in this manner.

Some tasks can be done together while others require our entire attention. Brilliant writers, musicians, programmers and engineers all hold entire works in their heads at one time and basically transcribe them. When doing that it is best not to be interrupted.
.-= Gail @ Support Small Business´s last blog ..How CommentLuv Grows Businesses and Blogs =-.


10 John Soares May 27, 2010 at 6:06 PM

Wow! Gail, thanks for sharing this insight.

We have a local musician in the Mount Shasta area who used to be a pro. He plays the keyboards with one hand and the trumpet in the other hand.


11 Gail @ Support Bloggers May 27, 2010 at 7:45 PM

Hi John,

I’m glad you liked it. There are many musicians who play multiple instruments but I’m not one of them. I pretty much stick to the piano, organ and harpsichord.

If you ask in any group of musicians about 1/3 of them will be programmers. If you ask in any group of programmers at least one-third of them will be musicians. The same is true of pedigree analysts. The binary math used by computers is the same as music notation and geneology.

In the old days of slow computers you could watch them count up (and we used to communicate with them manually in binary converted to hex):

In music notation:
whole, half, quarter, sixteenth, 32nd, 64th

In pedigrees / geneology:
1 offspring, 2 parents, 4 grandparents, 8 great grandparents – the number of ancestors in each generation doubles. There are patterns we use to breed champion animals based on positions in the generations and especially on the mitocondrial (maternal) lines of decent.

Last time I saw the statistics, more music majors get accepted into Engineering schools than Engineering majors. All of these are related fields.
.-= Gail @ Support Bloggers´s last blog ..Support Small Businesses =-.


12 John Soares May 27, 2010 at 7:51 PM

Hmmm. Perhaps my mediocre computer skills are related to my mediocre music skills?

I did do quite well in math, though. I made it all the way through differential equations, linear algebra, and vector analysis, and then had to use some of that in physical chemistry courses, especially quantum mechanics.


13 Allison June 13, 2011 at 12:16 PM

Just wondering, but the what type of sequence are the #’s 1,2,4,8, etc. I thought they were fibonnochi before remembering you added the # before the current, not doubling. Is this just doubling?


14 Gail @ Support Small Businesses May 29, 2010 at 12:41 PM

LOL you went far beyond me in math. Even decades ago many American schools were sadly lacking. The most “advanced” math offered in my high school was Geometry. I was one of the two top Algebra wizes but that is as far as my math education went.

I believe that we each have unique talents suited to our specific callings. I also believe that when something is “hard” for us that is a good indication it isn’t part of what we are intended to be doing. (If it were would pick it up easier.)

I’m not saying that we should only do what is easy – only that we should be clear on what we are called to do and what we are not. It is obvious to me that I am to understand the big picture. I know enough about something to identify who is brilliant at it so I can recommend them.

That is ALL I am intended to know. I am not supposed to learn how to do each thing myself – it is impossible due to time constraints. The ideal solution is community. Only those who learn to rely on the other trusted members of a community will thrive – and each community must accept ONLY those who are 100% trustworthy.

One bad apple and all that. It only takes one selfish person to destroy the peace and tranquility of all. Communities must reject members who are selfish and immediately throw out anyone who managed to slip in that doesn’t belong.

People are either selfless or they are not. There is no in between. Some can pretend quite well most of the time so they must be judged on their worst moments. Any selfishness = selfish and not selfless.
.-= Gail @ Support Small Businesses´s last blog ..Word of Mouth Marketing =-.


15 John Soares May 31, 2010 at 6:51 AM

Gail, this is such an important point about deciding what we can be good at, and then networking with quality people to help us with the things we are not good at.

Community and connections are very important, as you say. And we need to observe people’s actions to be sure they are in accordance with ours.


16 Anne Sales @ Coupon Codes March 5, 2011 at 5:28 PM

So, the research shows that both woman AND men can multitask – all you need is a brain! 😀 Jokes aside, what this research tells me, is that it can be learnt. If you want to be able to do it, you can learn how to.
Anne Sales @ Coupon Codes recently posted…Coolhandle


17 Allison June 13, 2011 at 12:17 PM

Huh, that explains why I can read and talk or comb my hair and brush my teeth. Thanks for the advice! Is it wise to sing to a familiar song while driving?


18 John Soares June 13, 2011 at 3:37 PM

I say sing away. I do!
John Soares recently posted…8 Ways to Increase the Joy of Writing


19 Veronica Cervera October 27, 2011 at 6:35 PM

There is a point when it becomes too much, we are likely to screw it up if we do so many things altogether. Especially when were dealing with business, I would mind spending a little bit more time doing a task and doing it well than finishing it faster but making huge mistakes along the way.

Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast. :)


20 John Soares October 29, 2011 at 7:18 AM

The key is learning what we can effectively multitask and what we cannot. For me it involves paying close attention to the results I get when I multitask, and exactly what I’m doing.
John Soares recently posted…Top Speed Reading Techniques to Boost Your Productivity


21 Edward Villanueva December 27, 2012 at 11:52 PM

Although there are many problems with multitasking, sometimes it is one way to find your focus zone again and increase your productivity.


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