It’s a little-known fact that the human brain can only cope with a single task at a time. If you’re doing several things at once, you’re not multitasking, you’re just juggling.
“But I multitask all the time!” you might say.
This is actually an illusion caused by our brain quickly switching between tasks. You can never give 100% of your focus to two or more tasks — that’s just not how brains work.
Technology amplifies this illusion, letting us feel like we’re watching TV, texting, and working on some homework all at the same time. However all we’re actually doing is switching our focus between all these jobs so quickly you don’t notice there’s a gap.
Why does this happen?
This is your brain on multitasking.
As you do different tasks, these jobs are competing for the same resources in your brain, which can’t give in to both at once. Instead, it compromises — flicking between the two (or more) as quickly as it can.
For example, speaking on the phone while writing an email is actually impossible. They’re both after the same brain power — communication — so you’ll find that you can either pay attention to your call, or draft an email, but not both simultaneously.
There’s conflict between these jobs. Researchers can actually watch your brain fighting to resolve the problem, if you’re hooked up to an MRI.
“People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves.” — Earl Miller, Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT
Instead, it diverts to a compromise: the switch. Write five words of the email. Recall the last three seconds of phone conversation. Come up with relevant thing to answer. Switch back to email.
Your brain tells its executive system, located in the frontal lobe, to decide which task to pay attention to, and when.
The really cool thing about this is that it works both ways — while attention can be shunted from task to task, it can also dampen other stimuli. For instance, if you’re trying to focus on the call and the email, your brain will ignore if people are talking in the background, your brain optimizes and tunes them out.
Unless these people start to shout, in which case your brain reprioritizes stimuli and pays attention to them instead.
This sort of constant shifting and juggling is back from our hunter-gatherer days, when it was necessary to rapidly shift from task to task, because we were cooperative hunters.
You had to know where all your hunting buddies were, and where your prey was, and whether it was about to jump at you, all updating as quickly as possible.
What should you do instead?
What your brain is really good at is working on stuff in the background while you do other tasks.
That’s because these different jobs use different brainpower. For example, while you’re focused on writing an article, you might suddenly realize the solution for a work problem.
How can you do this at home?
Make sure you put your most demanding tasks up front at the start of your day. Do your best to pay attention to them, work on them, and solve them.
Then, later, while you’re answering emails, or fixing lunch, or doing different kinds of tasks, you’ll find that your brain has been working on this complex problem in the background, making new connections and forging new paths between the different areas of your brain.
I’ve written about this before!
Here’s Why Good Ideas Only Come to Us in the Shower
And how you can learn to generate good ideas on demand.
At the end of the day, nobody can do two things at once. Instead, try to structure your day so you can focus on what’s important right at the start, and let your subconscious dream of the answer while you’ve moved on to other tasks.