Multi-tasking, messy brains and multipotentialites

One of my resolutions for March’s ‘Slow Down’ Happiness Project theme is no multi-tasking. On the surface it seems quite a simple resolution to keep. How hard can it be to not do two things at once? Turns out it’s harder than I thought.

When I come to filling out my resolution chart at the end of the day I often have trouble figuring out whether I’ve succeeded with not multi-tasking or not. Why is this? The world we live in is fast paced, with the technology we have at our fingertips multi-tasking is easier than ever. I’m sure you’d join me in checking your emails, going through social media then opening five different links all in the first few minutes of a train journey. The world I live in seems built for multi-tasking but, as I slow down my life, I really want to work to change this habit.

The messy brain theory of multi-tasking

Nb. This theory has no basis in actual science, and is purely of my own making.

If you’re anything like me you don’t just multi-task when you’re working. I multi-task all the time. Supposed relaxation activities often have a multi-tasking component (watching TV and checking Twitter anyone?). I might be making breakfast in the morning and start putting the dry dishes away half way through dishing up my porridge. When multi-tasking happens round the house we notice it. Half-done chores scattered around the room do not make a pretty picture.

If multi-tasking leads to a messy, scattered house surely it also leads to a messy brain?

The actual science of multi-tasking

So, when we need to pay attention to a certain task the prefrontal cortex area of our brain becomes active. What this does is help us to focus on the task at hand, and communicates to other areas of the brain what needs to be done to carry out the task. When we focus on one task the left and right sides of the brain work together, when we multi-task they split up.

Our brains are actually built to deal with tasks in order, not all at once. When we get lots of new information too quickly our brain can’t handle it. It only queues up the first two pieces of information to deal with and forgets the rest. Lots of studies have shown multi-tasking (ironically) makes us way less productive. 

If I think to days when I flit between tasks the day ends with me feeling totally exhausted, overwhelmed, stressed and I haven’t got much done.

Apparently multi-tasking reduces our IQ the same as smoking pot does. AND (I love this quote)

According to Dr. Clifford Nass, the author of The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, the more you multitask, the less you’re able to learn, concentrate, or be nice to people.

He believes multitasking stunts emotional intelligence and makes us less creative, and studies support this. – source

How do I stop multi-tasking?

I am a self-identified multipotentialite (read about what that is over here and I’ll delve into it another time). I work on a lot of different projects at the same time. BUT that doesn’t mean I need to work on them literally at the same time. I really like the tips in this article on the puttylike site for multipotentialites. It differentiates between focus mode and scanning mode and allows for multi-tasking in scanning mode (?!). Also, the point about focus mode not having to be super long is really useful. Your focus mode can be 15 minutes, as long as you make sure you focus on that one thing the whole time.

I’m also finding it useful just trying to be mindful of when I’m multi-tasking, and if it’s really necessary. Usually it isn’t, and when I force myself to stay focused I feel much clearer for it.


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