Writers are often tempted to multitask because they think it’s a good time management technique, but usually it decreases productivity. But not always…
What is Multitasking?
It’s doing 2 or more things, supposedly at the same time. Sometimes you can do it, it’s appropriate, and it increases your productivity. However, most of the time it’s counterproductive.
Here’s why. If you try to do 2 activities at once that both involve significant use of your active cognitive functions, your brain has to continually switch from one activity to the other because the brain can only focus on one thing at a time. Each time it switches to an activity, it needs to reload the set of rules and skills needed to do that activity, and this can take nearly a second. Ditto when you switch back to the other activity.
Now, a second is not much time. But if you keep switching back and forth between tasks, it adds up, plus it increases mental fatigue.
Here’s what the American Psychological Association says about multitasking:
Whether people toggle between browsing the Web and using other computer programs, talk on cell phones while driving, pilot jumbo jets or monitor air traffic, they’re using their “executive control” processes—the mental CEO—found to be associated with the brain’s prefrontal cortex and other key neural regions such as the parietal cortex. These interrelated cognitive processes establish priorities among tasks and allocate the mind’s resources to them.
The measurements revealed that for all types of tasks, subjects lost time when they had to switch from one task to another, and time costs increased with the complexity of the tasks, so it took significantly longer to switch between more complex tasks.
When You Should Not Multitask
Don’t multitask whenever you are doing something important that requires detailed mental processing of information, or in which you need to be fully aware and paying attention to what you are doing. Examples:
1. Important conversations
2. Freelance writing, fiction writing, poetry writing, any writing — including e-mails
3. Driving, in most circumstances
4. Doing complicated physical tasks, especially potentially dangerous ones, like chopping wood
A bit more about multitasking when driving. I do listen to educational audios when driving, or if I have a passenger, I’ll talk. What you shouldn’t do while driving:
- Talk on the cell phone
- Use any electronic communication device
- Do anything at all complicated with food or drink (no sloppy burritos)
If traffic is heavy or road conditions are iffy, I don’t listen to audios; I pay full attention to driving safely.
When You Can Multitask
There are circumstances when you can and should multitask, and you definitely will save time. These involve doing one activity that you have done many, many times and can do with very little conscious thought. You can do these and, for example, hold a conversation at the same time:
1. Washing dishes
2. Pulling weeds in the garden
3. Doing housework—cleaning, folding laundry
4. Some forms of repetitive exercise, like exercise machines or stretching
5. Waiting on hold on the telephone
There are some potentially gray areas. For example, when you eat it’s often best for your digestion to focus on what your eating — the taste, the smell, the appearance, the texture — and also on chewing well and relaxing. I have a habit of reading when I eat alone, a habit I initially began as a little tike reading the back of cereal boxes and which soon escalated into reading books and magazines, and now sometimes includes looking at the Internet. I find it relaxes me.
Managing Multiple Tasks is Not Multitasking
We all have many items on our to-do lists, and figuring out the best ways to get them done and in what order is an important time-management skill. However, that’s not the same as trying to do two or more things at once.
In what ways has multitasking hurt you in the past? What are some effective ways you can do it and free up more time? Share your experiences and suggestions with us.