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Wednesday Wisdom and Multitasking

Multitasking vs Task Switching

When we try to do two tasks at once, the cognitive resources we have available for each task is reduced. In most cases we aren’t actually multitasking we are just “task switching” rapidly. This “switch cost” is up to a 40% productivity loss, the cost being greater when switching from hard to easy tasks and vice versa.

Multitasking is only truly possible when we are using two separate “channels” in the brain, two different sensory signals. For example we can exercise and listen to music or other audio at the same time without a reduction in cognitive resources.

Task switching is related to attention impulsivity, we actually teach the brain to be distracted when we jump from task to task without staying focused on it to completion (when possible). But this means we can also teach the brain to improve attention.

Some ways to improve your attention are:

  • Practicing mindfulness or meditation, which reduces mind wandering
  • Exercise before an activity that requires more focus
  • Hydrate (even 2% dehydrated impairs attention)
  • Listen to classical music
  • Drink tea (research which ones help attention first)
  • Chew gum
  • Music and chess training
  • Video games (in elderly people)

So what is the moral of the story? Work on one task at a time, unless you are using two different sensory channels!

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