007. Walk and Chew Gum: Neuroscience Shatters the Multitasking Myth
Why Multitasking Leads to Lower Productivity and More Mistakes
"Can you walk and chew gum at the same time?" Of course, you can! But how about juggling a phone call, responding to an email, and taking notes from a Zoom meeting simultaneously?
Let's be clear: Our brains are impressive, but they're not built to handle multiple attention-demanding tasks simultaneously, especially when it comes to cognitively demanding tasks.
That's right, despite what we've been told, multitasking isn't a real superpower, it's a fantastic illusion. The stars of this magic show?
Imagine your brain like a busy traffic control center. The Salience Network is the diligent traffic officer at the crossroads. This officer's job is to monitor the flow of vehicles (your tasks) and decide which one should proceed at any given moment. For example, when you're knee-deep in a report and a text message buzzes in, your Salience Network comes into action to decide whether the text is important enough to warrant immediate attention or not.
Multitasking isn't a real superpower.
Now, the Default Mode Network (DMN) is like the wandering mind of a daydreaming poet that takes over when the traffic officer takes a break. This network gets you lost in thoughts about what you'll have for dinner, the vacation you're planning next month, or that embarrassing moment in third grade. You know, the kind of thoughts that have a knack for popping up when you're trying to concentrate!
Our brain is an energy hog, consuming 20 percent of all the calories we consume every day.
So, what's really happening when you think you're multitasking? We're actually task-switching. Our brain rapidly toggles between tasks, but with each switch, there's a cognitive cost. In fact, our brains, when not used effectively, can make us feel like we’ve run a marathon in a hurricane! Our brain is an energy hog, consuming 20 percent of all the calories we consume every day. Compare that to our heart which only uses 5 to 10% of our intake.
Ultimately, our brain is performing a high-speed juggling act, rapidly shifting attention from one task to another, orchestrated by the Salience Network. Meanwhile, the Default Mode Network is ready to interject with random thoughts whenever it gets a chance. It takes our brain a moment—just a few tenths of a second—to orient to a new task.
The Plot Thickens
In this light-speed switching and random thought interjections, the plot twist is: your performance and attention to detail on each task can actually drop! Your projects may take longer, and the error rate might go up - not exactly the productivity boost you were hoping for with multitasking, right?
Does this mean we should only do one thing at a time, always? Not necessarily. Our brains can handle multiple tasks when at least one of them is automatic or habitual, like walking and talking. The challenge arises when trying to perform multiple tasks that require conscious effort and attention.
As a manager, here are some insights you can put into practice:
Consider The Pomodoro Technique: Work on one task for 25 minutes, then take a 5-minute break. Repeat this cycle, taking longer breaks every fourth cycle.
Mindfulness and Meditation:
Mindfulness is about being fully present and engaged in the current activity. It involves consciously paying attention to your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations without judgement. Meditation is a way to practice mindfulness.
Single-Tasking and Time Blocking:
Dedicate specific time slots to different tasks. Focus on one task at a time within its assigned time slot.
Foster a Distraction-Free Environment:
Help reduce the need for multitasking by creating a work environment that minimizes unnecessary distractions and interruptions.
So, the next time you're tempted to handle multiple complex tasks at once, remember how your brain is really wired. Give it a break; focus on one task at a time. Trust me, your Salience Network and Default Mode Network will thank you!
Thanks for joining me again as I continue my myth-busting journey through the fascinating labyrinth of the human brain. I hope you’re enjoying my series on debunking neuromanagement myths enough to share this with just two connections. And if you haven’t subscribed, please click here.
Thank you and watch for next week’s myth: what neuroscience has to say about Visual Learner or Auditory Learner?
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