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Mastering the Fine Art of Multi-Tasking

Use your mind to the max by splitting your consciousness

How many windows are open on your computer right now? If you're like most of us, I venture to guess you're running a couple of Internet sites (at least) not to mention your email, your Facebook page, Twitter, a word processer, a spreadsheet, and maybe a few other random software applications. Then close by, is there a cellphone and maybe an eBook reader and an iPod or iPad? Do you like having all these multiple sources of connectivity but worry that they can hamper your productivity? Cheer up! There are actually many advantages to splitting your mental resources, as long as you do it correctly.

It may be hard for you to believe that multitasking could ever have benefits. The flurries of articles that sporadically appear in the popular media proclaim that multitasking is the mental version of the apocalypse. They claim that we are all going to descend into the netherworld of scatterbrain syndrome in which our minds deteriorate from too much cognitive fragmentation.

Multitasking while driving can involve more than cellphone use

However, there's bad multitasking and good multitasking. The experts widely agree, and often with good reason, that we should not let anything distract us from driving. Many states ban cellphone use in the car even with hands-free technology. The claims are that talking on the phone is inherently more distracting than talking to a real person who is in the same car. However, there are no laws against, say, eating a pizza while driving. Nor is there a ban against listening to the radio or even adjusting the heat or windshield wipers. We can poke away at our GPS's with reckless abandon and not break any laws. Yet, all of these activities have the potential to cause us to take our eyes off the road.

Cellphones seem to have a uniquely distracting feature. They can envelop us in conversations that suck our mental resources and because the person we're talking to can't see the road, we lose the benefit that an actual passenger in the car can provide in case we don't see a road hazard. According to University of Utah psychologists Jason Watson and David Strayer, the risk of accidents during cellphone use is due to a form of "inattentional blindness" in which events go on around us but our senses fail to register them. Only approximately 2.5% of the population, the so-called "supertaskers," are able to manage to balance the cognitive demands of driving and talking on the phone.

Yet, we don't really need a cellphone, pizza dinner, or quirky GPS to distract us while we drive. Our minds are perfectly capable of creating inattentional blindness by our ability to split our consciousness into multiple parts. We've all experienced the "highway hypnosis" syndrome (or, if you don't drive, a "sidewalk hypnosis" equivalent) in which we travel for a considerable length of time without knowing how we got from point A to point B. In many situations, it's virtually impossible to keep our minds focused on the task we're supposed to be completing. Do you seriously study every piece of silverware as you wash off a meal's residue? Have you ever fully concentrated on what every muscle in your body is doing while you go through your daily workout?

Even those of us who are able to "live in the moment" and fixate on exactly what our bodies are doing with each action aren't really doing so. Many neuroscientists propose that the mind operates in units or modules that carry out subroutines. Our frontal lobes may orchestrate the so-called executive functions of the mind that allocate resources to given tasks, but it's rare for our brains to operate with a singular focus.

Stanford psychologist Ernest Hilgard developed the "neodissociation theory" of hypnosis in which he proposed when in a trance, the mind of the hypnotized person splits off into parts. The hypnotist controls one part while the subject watches from another part (the "hidden observer"). According to this model, hypnosis is an unusual form of everyday consciousness in that someone else (the hypnotist) is directing our actions. The dissociated state of hypnosis allows people to undergo painful dental or surgical procedures without "feeling" the pain. Essentially, however, dissociation occurs frequently in daily life and can explain highway hypnosis or any situation in which one part of your brain is controlling, say, your your walking and another part is thinking back on what you did yesterday or will do tomorrow.

Because our brains can handle multiple tasks at once, dividing our consciousness is not an inherently dangerous activity. The risk seems to come into play when we place too many demands on our cognitive resources. If the "cognitive load" of a task is too severe, the performance of one task will in fact suffer. This is another reason that cellphone use while driving is so much more dangerous even than other distractible driving sins. Talking on the phone sucks up more cognitive resources than we can afford to reallocate from those we need to follow road signs, avoid other cars, keep in mind where we're going, and take into account the weather and traffic conditions.

In many other situations, however, we have ample cognitive resources to complete the tasks of our daily lives. If we multitask under those conditions, we can actually improve our mental efficiency. For many well-practiced and routine tasks, it's not worth spending the mental effort. If a task requires only 10% of our resources, why not put that other 90% to good use?

So there you are, doing the dishes. Occasionally you may have to puzzle about how to remove a stubborn stain or piece of food. Apart from that, why not let your mind solve a few other problems that you didn't have the time or energy to handle while at work, school, or taking care of the kids in those more cognitively demanding tasks? In fact, people are often better problem-solvers when they can "break set." Think of those times when you couldn't remember someone's name only to have it pop into your mind a few minutes later, after you stopped trying. Similarly, if you can walk away from a situation that isn't going well and return to it later, your chances of successfully coming up with a solution are much higher because you'll approach it from a different angle. The chances are even greater that you'll have that "aha" moment when you're doing something completely different.

How about all those windows, technological toys, and other potential distractions staring at you right now? Shouldn't you put those aside if you're trying to get something done? As it turns out, playing an hour of online games isn't a particularly good way to maximize your productivity, but you may actually benefit from a brief mental break while you're at plugging away at your desktop. Even a brief walk in the park can help you recharge your brain's batteries. You're also be more likely to catch an error if you take your eyes away from the document you're working on and return to it after a slight shift of mental focus. Go ahead and update your Facebook status (quickly!). If you're feeling frustrated, you may get a little uplift from checking in with friends and family, if only for a moment.

Within limits, the phrase "divide and conquer" can help us improve our productivity. To sum up, here are the basics:

1. Maximize your brain power by offloading easy tasks. Though mindless busywork can be fun from time to time, it's better to use the times when you must take care of chores to work on other mentally engaging problems.

2. Develop your multitasking abilities. Some people find it impossible to do more than one thing at a time. Yet, much of real life demands that we do accomplish multiple goals. Figure out how to expand your range so that you don't get behind.

3. Stay active even while vegging out. For many people, TV time is veg-out time. Why not supplement your entertainment by picking up a hobby that you can conveniently carry out in front of the screen?

4. Make use of waiting time. Probably the least productive use of your time is waiting. Find ways to occupy yourself while on hold or on line. Mental exercises can also help you keep your blood pressure down if you're the impatient type.

5. Don't let multitasking turn to mindlessness. Memory slips often are the result of people failing to attend to incoming information. You'll be less likely to forget your keys, your phone, or your umbrella if you actually pause and look at what you're doing when you put them down on a desk or counter.

6. Know when it's rude or self-defeating to multi-task. It's not a good idea to multitask at meetings, in class, or during a romantic interlude. You'll be perceived of as insensitive and you might miss out on important information or experiences.

7. Avoid putting yourself in danger by draining your cognitive resources. Remember that some tasks demand more of your mental juice than others. Learn to tell the difference between activities in which it's safe to let your mind wander and those when it's not.

8. Know your multitasking limits. Not everyone is capable of the same level of attention-dividing. Experiment until you find the level at which your most comfortable and safe.

As the poet Emily Dickinson said, "The brain is wider than the sky." We can do more than we realize if we build on our brain's potential for dividing its consciousness.

Copyright 2011 Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Check out my website, for more information. Take a brief quiz and read more about multitasking on the Weekly Focus.


Strayer, D. L., Watson, J. M., & Drews, F. A. (2011). Cognitive distraction while multitasking in the automobile. In B. H. Ross, B. H. Ross (Eds.) , The psychology of learning and motivation: Advances in research and theory (Vol 54) (pp. 29-58). San Diego, CA US: Elsevier Academic Press.

Watson, J. M., & Strayer, D. L. (2010). Supertaskers: Profiles in extraordinary multitasking ability. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 17(4), 479-485. doi:10.3758/PBR.17.4.479

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