Brain and its fishes
When talking about multitasking, people often emphasize time-saving. We tend to think that doing more things at a time reduces total time spent working. Well, it’s bullshit, and more and more of us are beginning to realize. Imagine a fisherman. His goal is to catch as many fishes as possible. He can use one big fishing net and try to catch them all, or he can use a small one to grab one at a time. Using the big one can sometimes feel slow, but in the end, it’s like a million times more productive. Okay, understood – but how does this relate to multitasking?
Well, it’s pretty much the same thing. Your brain is like the fisherman, and your tasks are the fishes. You can either chase them one after another with a small net. That ’s what you do when multitasking. Alternatively, you can pick up a huge net and catch them all. It may seem slow, but in the end, your family won’t die of hunger. That’s worth of trying. So, what is the big net called?
It’s called concentration. To concentrate is the essential ability you need when doing almost anything. You need it to cook a meal; you need it to drive a car; you need it when studying. Multitasking is the prominent enemy of this ability. Ask yourself, why is it illegal to phone while driving a car? The answer is obvious: you split your concentration between driving and calling.1 Driving is something that you should be concentrated entirely on when doing it. Because phoning behind the wheel can result in a tragedy. So, is there an equally tragic result of multitasking in our everyday life?
Neuroscience consultant Marilee Springer says, “Multi-tasking is known to slow people down by 50 % and add 50 % more mistakes”. While the numbers don’t need to match precisely, the point is glaring. Recall last time you were rushing to work (or school). You had to shower yourself, dress up, pack your stuff, cook and eat your breakfast – all in ten minutes. You ended up being hungry, 20-minutes late, with your t-shirt wet and inside out. The question is: Does this have anything to do with multitasking, or is it just bad luck?
Of course, it does. The point is if you slow down when in rushing state, you might, after all, do things faster. Thomas Sterner (2012) in his book The Practising Mind describes his one, particularly stressful workday. He had hours of work ahead of him in different places. His job was to prepare pianos for concerts. In the morning, he had to adjust two pianos. Then to do service work covering two different states. Finally, he had to return and check the two pianos once again after the concert. This day wasn’t his first like this. Sterner, tired and frustrated, decided to be deliberately working slow that day. If he “couldn’t get a day off,” he said, “then at least the idea of going slowly for one day seemed rather appealing.” So what was the result of him working this way?
Instead of rushing and working in stress, every bit of the preparation was calm. Sterner unpacked his tools, one after one he laid them on the floor and started with the procedure. Instead of speeding, he did his job step-by-step, taking care of every bit. So, considering this, he assumed being late. Well, watching the radio in the car, Sterner couldn’t believe his eyes. To make sure what he was seeing was the truth, he checked with his watches. He got ahead of his schedule. He got so far ahead, that as he says was “afforded the luxury of a civilized meal in a nice restaurant, instead of the usual sandwich in the truck or no lunch at all.” But how the hell did slow down speeded him up?
Working slow, he could concentrate on every bit of work. That resulted in much accurate and faster work, which meant fewer mistakes and reparations needed. Slowing down makes you more concentrated on what you do. Also, doing something more focused means doing it better. So next time when you are in a rush, try to slow down. Don’t try to cook your breakfast while having a shower, do one thing after another. Don’t try to prepare the whole piano at once; take care of every string. Well, now you would expect not to chase all fishes at once, but to chase them one after one, right?
The Alzheimer of Concentration
Let me explain – when multitasking, you might feel like a fisherman with more fishing nets. Then, you may believe being able to catch more fishes at one moment. The truth is that there is nothing like more nets to the fisherman called Brain. APA (2006), in their article Multitasking: Switching costs (APA, 2006), describes in detail what multitasking is. It’s nothing like chasing more fishes with more nets. It’s precisely like chasing more fishes with one net. Your brain cannot concentrate on two different things at a time. What it does is switching its attention to the tasks. So, you break your concentration into pieces, which means you won’t be able to do any of the tasks accurate. This adds mistakes and multiplies the time. That’s the reason why you should pick up that one huge net, called concentration, and put off the small one you use when multitasking.
Also, your ability to concentrate is getting weaker every time you multitask. On the other hand, if you want to be able to concentrate, you must train it. Only focusing when doing something mattering is not enough. You should practice this skill in your everyday life, which is getting extremely hard, due to modern technology. The problem with current technology is that it makes you addicted. You know well the picture of two people sitting next to each other and scrolling their Facebook instead of talking to each other. It illustrates the whole problem. We have become so used to being online, that we are feeling nervous when we’re not.2 But do we need to be connected all the time?
No, but it feels good. Why not entertain yourself every time you get bored? Why not check your messages every five minutes? It doesn’t look like a problem. However, it is — a big one. What Alzheimer does to your brain, does this to your concentration. It’s rotting it. Checking your phone while working might feel innocuous. You may assume that it doesn’t affect your focus. However, as writes Cal Newport (2016) “interruption, even if short, delays the total time required to complete a task by a significant fraction.” Every time you split your concentration, your fishing net gets smaller. It would be best if you avoided every single interruption. Because even checking your phone is multitasking, which we already know is wrong.
Hide – The World Can Wait
Most of us are not in position when we need to be 24/7 on the phone, ready to give or accept orders. When you do something you need to concentrate on, like learning or working, put your mobile away. Sneeze it and hide it. You won’t be working forever, and the news will wait for you. People can wait an hour to get your answer. You will feel stressed, especially in the beginning. It’s difficult to stay concentrated for a more extended period. Because of your multitasking, you have weakened your ability to focus so much, that it will feel unnatural. You should embrace this and stretch your limits. Also, remember, concentration is natural – multitasking is not.
If you practice it, your ability to concentrate will get better. You will be working faster and more effective. You will save your time. Your fishing net will become huge again. Practicing it will be hard, but it will pay off. Forget that multitasking bullshit. You receive nothing you wish from multitasking. The truth is, you must do just the opposite. Start doing one thing at a time.