Why Our Brains Tell Us We are Good Multitaskers When We Are Definitely Not

December 28, 2019

The businessman is standing in front of many notes
Emmanuel Feranmi

It must have happened to you before. You had multiple tasks to get done. These tasks take a lot of time on their own and are by no means minor assignments. But by some accident of fate and luck, you find yourself having to do all three at the same time.

Suddenly, you get a spur of energy. If you manage your time and attention well, you can reasonably get all those tasks done in adequate time. You can make breakfast, watch the kids and still manage to get ready for work in thirty minutes or less. You can write that email while speaking to a client and also get your memo done in time for the meeting at noon.

But you really can't. Most times it ends in frustration, or even more often, you get derailed and manage to get only one task done.

The important question to ask is why? Why does our brain tell us that we are able to do multiple things at a time when in actual fact, we cannot. Is it just a fluke of nature or is there a deeper reason?

The Human Brain and Multitasking

Humans aren't great at it, simple. In fact, many studies suggest that multitasking actually reduces efficiency and performance. This is because the brain was designed to focus on only one thing at once, and when that limit is exceeded, it begins to lose efficiency.

Simply put, when you try to do two or more things at the same time, the capacity of your brain to perform gets significantly reduced. This isn't the only ill of multitasking. Apparently, studies have also suggested that multitasking goes a long way in reducing IQ.

Because the brain is quite unsuitable for multitasking, people take longer to complete seemingly easy tasks and are more prone to errors. Why is this so? One of the reasons is that the brain "is compelled to restart and refocus". That means multitasking is inherently not seamless, and the brain often has to refocus after a switch from task to task.

Obviously, this takes time and allows the brain to be more predisposed to making errors. Some of these errors can prove to be costly. Like having an accident because you tried to answer a phone call while driving.

So We Aren't Really Great At Multitasking?

Yes.

That, at least, seems to be the Intelligent consensus. The Human brain cannot multitask efficiently. But the fact is that many people assume that they are good at multitasking.

However, humans aren't bad at all types of multitasking. According to researchers, the human brain isn't quite as bad at balancing or multitasking tasks that use unrelated physical and mental resources. A good example is doing the dishes and listening to the radio.

They can do this because doing the dishes doesn't require listening. That is, the ear is not encumbered in one task, so one can pretty much get on with the other task. However, the moment things start getting complicated and two, three tasks get added to this mix, researchers say that efficiency gets reduced. Basically, you're either going to sacrifice speed or accuracy. In dire cases, you might have to sacrifice both.

The brain is designed to handle multitasking when actions have become so familiar that they are basically habits. A good example is riding a bicycle. When a person just starts learning to ride a bicycle, they need a lot of concentration to move from a point to another point without making a mistake. However, when a person has mastered the act, he can almost ride with his eyes closed.

Why Do We Assume That We Are Great at Multitasking When We Are Not?

One of the reasons, perhaps, is that humans imagine that they will be able to get things done quickly by multitasking. It's the lure of finishing several tasks within a short period that drives us.

It's also as a result of a sort of delusion. If we consider our multitasking to be successful due to confirmation bias, we train our mind to release dopamine after multitasking.

However, multitasking increases stress levels and does nothing at all for our short term memory. So, technically, it's easy to see how the release of dopamine would be a tempting venture for the brain. The brain, tired and stressed out from multitasking, wants the temporary high from finishing tasks by multitasking.

Can We Stop?

How can we stop multitasking if it releases dopamine in our brains? One way to combat the lure of multitasking is mindfulness. Allowing yourself to live in the moment and cultivating a  present-moment awareness can help with concentrating on the task at hand.

What is the opposite of multitasking? Unitasking. Training your mind to focus on one thing at a time increases productivity. This is because you expend the full extent of your mental energy on one task and you're able to complete it quicker and then move on to another task. Overall, you get your tasks finished at the earliest possible time.

So, when next you have a few tasks to do, try doing it one at a time instead of simultaneously. You'll find that your tasks will be completed in time, and you'll make limited errors as well. 

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