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Sorry, But Your Brain Only Knows One Way To Multitask Effectively

Your brain can multitask really well when one of the tasks is a habit you’ve developed in that particular context.

Sorry, But Your Brain Only Knows One Way To Multitask Effectively
[Photo: Tennen-Gas via Wikimedia Commons]

The news that multitasking is bad isn’t even news anymore. In recent years, people have begun to recognize what psychologists have known for decades: If you try to do two things at the same time, you’ll likely get worse at both of them.

But even for those who’ve fully embraced “monotasking,” there may be something that still doesn’t quite compute. No matter how good your performance when you focus on a single task, you also do multiple things at once all the time, often pretty effectively. You may even have the lurking suspicion that there are some things you can keep on multitasking at, without paying much of a price in terms of outcome.

And you’d be right.

The truth is that there’s at least one form of multitasking our brains do perfectly well all the time–the only thing is that we don’t often consider it multitasking. Right now, for instance, I’m composing this article while typing at my computer.

The two may seem like one and the same, but they’re distinct cognitive tasks. Likewise, I’ve seen cooks carry on complex conversations while chopping vegetables. And chances are that earlier this week you managed to walk down the street while talking with somebody or down the hallway while planning a meeting in your head.

On their surface, none of these things may seem to qualify as “multitasking,” but that’s exactly what they are to your brain. In fact, these are the only types of multitasking that our minds can pull off effectively. It’s why trying to talk with a coworker while composing an email will always be hopeless, even though talking with that same coworker while walking together toward the conference room isn’t. Here’s a look at how your brain knows the difference.

Making Your Working Memory Work Less

Some of the limitations to multitasking are obvious. As you may have been reminded as a child, for instance, you only have two hands. So if you’re trying to do two things at the same time and they both require your hands (or feet, or eyes), then you’re going to have to do one at a time or else suffer the consequences.

But those are primarily physical constraints, not (just) mental ones. A less apparent factor involves an aspect of our cognitive architecture called “working memory,” which simply refers to the amount of information we can hold in mind at one time. When working memory is filled, performance on cognitive tasks suffers. Multitasking taxes working memory by requiring you to hold in mind information about two or more distinct tasks simultaneously.

But here’s the thing: Making multitasking actually work is not a matter of expanding your working memory. It’s the reverse. In order to multitask effectively, you need to decrease the amount of working memory that a task requires. And that’s where habits come in.

Habits associate a behavior with a particular mental and physical environment. Essentially, they allow that action to be retrieved from memory and performed whenever that environment is present. It’s all about context, in other words.

If you’re an experienced driver, then merely sitting in the car helps your brain automatically retrieve the habits related to pressing the gas and brake pedals. You don’t need to seriously tax your your working memory in order to do that. Likewise, sitting at your keyboard and wanting to type the word “the” leads the brain of any practiced typist to retrieve the hand movements required to type “t” followed by “h” followed by “e.” Hearing the equation “2 + 3” allows anyone who’s learned basic arithmetic facts to pull up the answer “5″ without counting on their fingers.

Fitting Habits To Contexts

Because habits allow information and actions to be retrieved directly from memory, they’re your brain’s only reliable mechanism for partially or completely eliminating the working-memory load associated with a task. Once something has become habitual, you can integrate that task better with something else you’re doing that does tax your working memory.

The reason people learn to touch-type is so they can focus on the document they’re constructing without having the mental chore of actually typing the words get in the way. The context summons the action, which your brain performs more or less automatically. That means that if you’re in an environment that demands a certain amount of multitasking, you want to look for elements of the task that can be converted into habits in that context.

Then you want to practice those elements. Practice gets enough repetitions of the task into your long-term memory to increase the chance of your brain retrieving the correct action the next time you find yourself in that environment.

Finally, because you’re trying to retrieve information or an action from memory in a situation, you want to create consistency between the practice you engage in to develop habits and the situations in which you’re going to have to multitask. Think of it this way: The reason every computer keyboard is configured the same way is to make sure there’s uniformity between the context in which you first learned to type and every subsequent situation that requires typing.

That particular standard is enforced by the community, of course, but you can create consistency across your work environment for other habits as well. For example, I frequently use sticky notes to remind myself of upcoming events. But I’d often spend time searching for my pad of sticky notes, which disrupted my train of thought and made my work less efficient. I ultimately decided to place the sticky notes at the base of my computer monitor all the time–I’d never move it. Now I can just reach for a note in the middle of other tasks I’m performing rather than stopping and searching.

If that sounds simple, it is. But few of us take the time to convert these small aspects of our work into habits that actually allow us to multitask in a given context. If you can do that, you can reduce the working-memory load of many of the tasks you do. This way, even if multitasking does reduce your efficiency to some extent, you can use your habits to help your brain pull it off.

About the author

Art Markman, PhD is a professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin and Founding Director of the Program in the Human Dimensions of Organizations. Art is the author of Smart Thinking and Habits of Leadership, Smart Change, and most recently, Brain Briefs, co-authored with his "Two Guys on Your Head" co-host Bob Duke, which focuses on how you can use the science of motivation to change your behavior at work and at home.