Good Multi-Tasking Vs. Bad Multi-Tasking

by Ramona Creel

Finding Balance

Let's start by determining exactly what “multi-tasking” is. Merriam Webster defines this as “the carrying out of two or more tasks at the same time by one person.” This kind of multi-tasking occurs, for example, when you're talking to someone on the phone while writing an article — or when you're adding up a column of numbers and also watching TV. I call this “consecutive multi-tasking,” and it's the sort of fractured mental activity that sets you up for guaranteed failure. Aside from “low load” behaviors that require very little attention and occur almost automatically, at a sub-conscious level without you thinking about them (like walking, talking, breathing, or chewing) — the human brain just wasn't built to do more than one thing at once (or at least do them well!)

The brain only has so much mental RAM to go around — so throughout the day, your capacity to focus is constantly being divvied up and re-apportioned among all the activities in which you are currently engaged at that moment. When you ask your mind to perform two or more activities that require a high level of conscious concentration (like reading, writing, listening, hands-on mechanical tasks, mathematics, or logistical analysis) at the same time, it's likely that you're trying to use more computing power than you actually have available — and your brain is going to end up overloading. Whenever you attempt to simultaneously engage in multiple “high load” behaviors like this, one of two things will happen. Either the brain will shut one activity out in favor of completing the other (this happens when you're trying to carry on a conversation while doing something else, and you find that you can't remember a word the other person has said!) Or if it does actually manage to struggle through both tasks, your brain is going to accomplish each more slowly than it would if allowed to focus fully on just one activity at a time. It's the same thing that happens with your computer — if you  tell it to run a search AND back up your documents AND perform a complex calculation at the same time, every task slows down to a crawl. And, as with your computer, concurrent multi-tasking is more likely to bring up an error message (or more likely, the “blue screen of death”) — you will find yourself making stupid mistakes, forgetting important information, and failing to fully complete a task when your mind is occupied with more than one thing at a time.

Stop Banging Your Head

But the dictionary also includes a definition of multi-tasking that is more in line with my way of thinking — “the interleaved execution of two or more jobs.” Interleaved — ooh, I like that word! This means “to perform two or more actions or functions in an ALTERNATING fashion” — working first on one, than switching to another, then switching back to the first again. I call this “consecutive multi-tasking,” and it's a great way to make progress on multiple goals while avoiding becoming bored, stuck, or blocked a project.

However, I'm not talking about the kind of mindless and unplanned bopping back and forth between activities that causes you to waste 3 hours surfing the web when you should be doing your bookkeeping. Wink Allowing your brain to become interrupted in the middle of a project, letting it lead you away from the task at hand toward another (usually less important) activity is “distraction,” not “multi-tasking.” It then takes time and mental energy for your brain to make the shift back into gear, to remember where you left off, and what you need to do next — that's when “multi-tasking” becomes unproductive.

But a planned shift from one activity to another (which occurs at a natural “stopping point” in your work and is accompanied by a few notes as a “memory jogger” to help you dive back in quickly when you return to that task) can often be the best possible thing for boosting your productivity and increasing your energy levels. Have you ever tried to force yourself to plow ahead with a project when you really just didn't have it in you to continue? Your brain is fried, you can't concentrate, and you're essentially banging your head against a wall — but dammit, you're going to “make” yourself get it done! Then you look up several hours later, only to find that you're still right where you started, and haven't made even one step forward during all that time.The better choice would be to walk away and do something completely different, giving your brain a chance to rest and re-charge. For example, let's say you're stuck trying to put together a proposal for a new client, and your thoughts just keep going in circles. So you quit what you're doing and devote a half hour to that pile of papers you've been needing to file. You're crossing an important to-do off your list, but using an entirely different part of your brain (giving the lobe that was starting to hurt a rest.) Of course, your mind will subconsciously continue to work on your proposal, while on a conscious level, you're busy accomplishing something else. Then when you finish that task and return to writing, you're seeing things with fresh eyes, and the words just slide out of your pen (or clack out of your keyboard, as the case may be.)

I use this technique myself all the time in order to stay productive throughout the day. If I try to spend 8 straight hours on any one type of task, I burn out much more quickly than if I mix things up — so I actively plan my day to include these sorts of shifts. I'll spend an hour writing a blog, then move on to some phone calls, then switch to color-correcting photos or even washing dishes, and back to writing again — but I'm still only ever doing ONE of these activities at a time. Consecutive, not concurrent — that's the key to success with multi-tasking!

© Ramona Creel, all rights reserved. Ramona Creel is a modern Renaissance woman and guru of simplicity -- traveling the country as a full-time RVer, sharing her story of radically downsizing, and inspiring others to regain control of their own lives. As a Professional Organizer and Accountability Coach, Ramona will help you create the time and space to focus on your true priorities -- clearing away the clutter other obstacles and standing in the way of that life you've always wanted to be living. As a Professional Photographer, Ramona captures powerful images of places and people as she travels. And as a travel writer, social commentator, and blogger, she shares her experiences and insights about the world as we know it. You can see all these sides of Ramona -- read her articles, browse through her photographs, and even hire her to help get your life in order -- at www.RamonaCreel.com. And be sure to follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.