Betty W. Phillips, Ph.D., Psychology
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Multitasking



Multitasking. Let's Slow down and Enjoy Life in 2008


Have you seen the commercial about the virtues of multitasking? Lots of little clones of people multiply to carry out multiple tasks. Or have you seen the Indian goddess Kali with lots of arms? If you had a lot of arms I guess you could talk on the cell phone, e-mail, websurf and text while you are carrying lots of groceries. Well as a psychologist I'm not in favor of multiple personalities or even multiple arms. As one jokester put it, multitasking gives you the opportunity to screw up a lot!

Seriously, how can you keep all your commitments and still enjoy life? Paradoxically, by slowing down. In my last column I promised to review research results on multitasking to show you that you can actually slow down, reduce your stress and accomplish more. Technology tempts you, and life issues press you, toward doing more than one thing at a time. We think we are "saving time" when we try to do one or more things simultaneously under the illusion that our brain can do this for us. Research has established that this in fact is not true. When people think they are multitasking, they are actually switching their brain back and forth from one task to another, sacrificing time and increasing the error rate.

A review of neuroanatomy 101 tells us that we have many brain areas each capable of exercising different functions. Low and behold, our neurological wiring does not allow different parts of the brain to work in isolation. A part of the brain, Brodmann's Area 10 in the anterior prefrontal cortex, is our mental CEO responsible for coordination and planning. This area of the brain actually establishes priorities among tasks and allocates the mind's resources to the multiplicity of tasks available to us. It is well established that time is lost and errors increase markedly when more than one task is scheduled for the same time. Rather than being performed simultaneously, the brain must switch from task to task. In order to accomplish this, Area 10 has to perform three functions: deciding to stop the first task, deciding to switch to the next task, and finally starting the second activity. While our brain seems to communicate to us that we can comfortably perform more than one thing at a time, realize that this is actually an illusion.

So when and how can you multitask? You can multitask when one task is very familiar, ideally automatic, and the other task is dissimilar. Obviously we breathe and locomote while we are doing other things, although the scuttlebutt tells us that one US President could not walk or talk or chew gum at the same time. If one task is repetitive and familiar we can often engage in another task without loss of efficiency. For example, we can usually chop onions while we are talking or singing. The more complicated the second task, however, the greater loss in efficiency. If we need to make decisions, for example changing knives, the multitasking will slow us down, or if we want to sing arias, we may want to put aside the onions for greatest singing proficiency. Multitasking may be possible with simple repetitive tasks such as switching back and forth between chopping anions and tomatoes, but multitasking will cause interference when dissimilar tasks such as muffin making are added to the chopping.

You will also want to consider the mental stress and energy drain of multitasking, since it obviously will draw down more of your mental and emotional resources. If you want to relax and "chill out", consider slowing down and paying close attention to one task at a time until it is completed. Our modern day feelings of increased stress and anxiety as well as our physical and mental burnout and depression are related to our feeling overwhelmed by the various tasks awaiting us and the many electronic gadgets competing for our time and attention. Turn off the TV and answer your blackberry, e-mail or telephone only when necessary, grouping these tasks for maximum efficiency. Otherwise when you return to your work, you often have lost your train of thought. Picking up and starting again takes extra effort and time that you really don't have. With too many thoughts buzzing around in your head, you may be unable to enjoy calming, recreational pursuits or to sustain a peaceful night of sleep.

Remember that our technology is always on, but you need to take time off. Use external memory such as lists and planners to keep track of your multitasks while you pursue one activity at a time. Always monitor your speed. If you're doing something more quickly than you need to, take a deep breath and slow down. Schedule lots of down time and recreational time to keep yourself feeling human and enjoying life.

For 2008 also remember the power of positive thinking. Here's a pertinent joke: "An optimist stays up to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old one leaves."