Did you hear about the study that showed drivers who were talking on their cell phones (even hands-free) performed just as badly as drunk drivers?
Whether you've come across these particular alarming findings or not, you're probably not a stranger to the fact that a gargantuan heap of evidence suggests that trying to do multiple things at once generally makes your brain smolder and complain. (Though apparently a miniscule minority of us can actually handle constant switching).
The only problem with this scientific consensus against multitasking? Given how the world functions today, most of us have to do it anyway. Are we damned to fry our brains and lower our performance because of all that emailing while googling while responding to a text? Not entirely, if a fascinating recent Financial Times article is to be believed.
The lengthy piece by Tim Harford delves into the cultural roots of our current obsession with multitasking, defines several subtypes of the phenomenon, and rounds up a lot of (scary) anti-multitasking research like that mentioned above, but it also goes a step further. Acknowledging that like it or not, multitasking is sometimes a necessity for most of us, he also digs up a few tips to make the best of this reality, getting different tasks done at the same time without sacrificing too much quality (or sanity). They include:
1. Choose when to be online
You shouldn't eat mindlessly, grazing without thinking on whatever comes into view, and you shouldn't consume information that way either. “Tom Chatfield, author of Live This Book, suggests making two lists, one for activities best done with internet access and one for activities best done offline. Connecting and disconnecting from the internet should be deliberate acts,” Harford writes.
2. Tame your smartphone
Does it really need to ping at you every 20 seconds? Probably not. Besides being thoughtful about notifications, Harford recommends that you “set up a filing system within your email so that when a message arrives that requires a proper keyboard to answer--ie 50 words or more--you can move that email out of your inbox and place it in a folder where it will be waiting for you when you fire up your computer.”
3. Leverage your scattered brain
Multitasking has been shown to do a lot of harm, but there's one area at least where it might be at least a little beneficial — creativity. Pulling ideas from different domains and combining them is often at the heart of innovative ideas and multitasking can catalyze this mixing.
“Creative ideas come to people who are interdisciplinary, working across different organisational units or across many projects,” Harford quotes author and research psychologist Keith Sawyer as saying. So if you're going to multitask, try to mix things up and see if any creative sparks are generated.
Check out the complete article for more tips.