Can you remember those one-man bands – those guys with a drum strapped to their back, a piano accordion in their hands, a mouth organ in the mouth and cymbals taped to their legs? That is multitasking at its best. My female friends tell me I can’t multitask because I’m a man, and multitasking is the domain of women. They are the ones capable of simultaneously cooking, cleaning, working, caring for children and taking phone calls. Is this form of multitasking stressful? ‘Undoubtedly,’ my female friends tell me. But are people really meant to multitask? The experts are divided, however psychologists have discovered that two percent of the population can easily and successfully multitask.
What are supertaskers?
People who are truly and effortlessly able to multitask are known as ‘supertaskers’. They were discovered by psychologists, David Strayer and Jason Watson at the University of Utah. Strayer and Watson were trying to work out why talking on a mobile phone in a car is much more dangerous than chatting to a passenger, who is there with you in the car. Talking on a phone while driving can cause “inattentional blindness”. Things can happen on the road while we’re on the phone, but we don’t see them in time because our sense of sight has been usurped by our sense of hearing – basically we are too busy listening to the conversation to notice the danger. Talking to someone in the car with you is not as bad because if there is a hazard coming up your passenger is likely to warn you to watch the road. After studying 50 people, psychologists Strayer and Watson came across a person who could talk on the phone and still drive brilliantly. At first they thought it was a mistake in their data, but in the next batch of people they found another person who could do this. About 2.5 percent of the population are ‘supertaskers’. They can divide their concentration effortlessly between tasks, and it does not cause their performance to suffer.
The issue is that as humans we are very bad at working out whether we are ‘supertaskers’ or just ordinary taskers. Strayer and Watson also discovered that the better people believed they are at multitasking, the worse they did on a test which required them to memorise a list of words while also doing maths problem. I am going to take this opportunity to warn you not to speak on the phone while driving. I have a friend who is a paramedic and he has seen corpses at road accidents with mobile phones embedded in the chest. I am sorry to be so gruesome but driving while talking on a phone is dangerous. Don’t do it and if you see friends or family doing it, caution them to stop because they can hurt themselves or someone else.
We can (sometimes) do more than one thing
Back to multitasking … the reality is that we often find ourselves doing more than one thing at a time. For example we eat dinner and talk to family, we watch television and fold up clothes, we supervise children and unpack the shopping. Our brains are capable of doing more than one thing at a time, but things start to go wrong when we ask too much of our brains or our ‘cognitive resources’. Psychologists would say that when the ‘cognitive load’ becomes too great, we begin to stuff up. That is why we should not drive and talk on the phone. However in other situations we do have the cognitive resources to complete two jobs at once. Believe me, I can answer the questions on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and make an excellent pasta sauce at the same time.
Only multitask safely and sensibly
By multitasking safely and sensibly we can make good use of our time. When is the right time to multitask? I know of a woman who was trying to make a Christmas pudding from an elaborate, eighteenth-century Scottish recipe while simultaneously helping her teenaged son with a school project on Papua New Guinea’s economy and trying to fix the broken cover on her husband’s mobile phone. The outcome – she forgot to put the butter, eggs and sugar into the pudding, the Papua New Guinea project got a D, and she snapped the whole cover off the back of the phone. This was clearly not the right time to multitask.
In many other situations, we have the resources to complete a multitude of tasks. I’m talking about when we are doing well-practiced and routine tasks. It's just not worth spending all of your mental resources on that one task. If the task requires only 10 percent of our mind, why not put that other 90 percent to good use? For example I know that I can unpack the dishwasher and help my daughter learn her times-tables. Maths times-tables and unpacking the dishwasher are both well-practiced and routine tasks for me. Sometimes it even helps to be a little distracted. For example if you can’t remember someone’s name, you should stop thinking about it and do something else. A few minutes later the name will pop into your head – this is referred to as a ‘break set’. If you are struggling with a task, it can help to walk away and then come back later. This is especially true for creative projects. When I have writer’s block, I walk away from the keyboard and get on with everyday household jobs and forget about my writing. After a day, the writer’s block is gone and my creativity is surging. Going for a walk on the beach is a good way of recharging your creativity. If you want to improve your ability to multitask I have a few suggestions.
The ground rules of multitasking
- Start off by multitasking with easy tasks. You are probably already doing this – cooking, cleaning, organising.
- Practise multitasking. You will improve over time, and may even want to take on more complex tasks but know your limits. Do not make work calls while walking your dog, because one of you may end up under a car! Know your limits.
- Multitask while relaxing. Rather than just watch television, why not also clean out your desk. Also make good use of times when you are waiting. If waiting for a bus, write a to-do list in your mobile phone for example. How about taking up a new hobby, like knitting, that you can do while watching TV or waiting? I know that even guys knit now!
- Don’t over-do it. I recently wrote about a blog about losing keys, purses and wallets. If we are incredibly busy and doing too many tasks at once, our conscious mind no longer encodes information into our memories and we start suffering from ‘memory slips’. We lose little stuff or we can’t remember where we have parked that car at the shopping centre. These are sure signs that you are distracted and over-committed.
- Do not insult people by appearing distracted by other tasks. Give family members 100 percent of yourself – no multitasking! A family member may have something important to say to you, and will wait for the right moment, but if you are always distracted or multitasking they will not confide in you. Over time you will damage relationships.
- Multitask until you know your limits. I am not part of the 2.5 percent of the population who are supertaskers. The odds are that you aren’t either. This is okay. We all have different levels of ability when it comes to multitasking.
Learning to better multitask can be fun. It is really just another way to make better use of your time, however do not multitask to the point of stressing yourself and stuffing up jobs. Think of my poor friend who tried to make an old-fashioned Scottish plum pudding, research facts on Papua New Guinea’s economy and fix a mobile phone. She was disappointed with the results for each three tasks.
ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.