What Happens In The Brain When We’re Multitasking And Should We Even Do It?

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Think of your brain like an old Windows desktop (probably the first system that introduced you to the beautiful world of the internet.) Now think about how you thought of multitasking and opened a couple of tabs, only to stare at that buffering circle on your screen. Even though preemptive multitasking was one of the core features of Microsoft (more on that later.)

And arguably, it still happens to most of us. However advanced our computers might get, when we open a plethora of tabs on our browser, we face the inevitable buffer.

Exception: David Roberts from Vox who opened 277 tabs on his browser without any difficulty using some nerdy browser hacks!

But here’s the catch. Computers were built by looking at the neural networks of our brain. So there’s bound to be similarities. And unfortunately, the computers we’ve built have long surpassed our meagre human brain abilities. This means our brains need to put even more effort when we want to practice multitasking.

What happens in the brain when we’re multitasking

Even advanced high-tech computers slow down when they’re multitasking in the form of 10s of 100s of open browsers. So what do you think happens in our brain when we try and open multiple tabs – to carry out many tasks all at the same time?

Think how when you’re cooking and someone’s talking in your ear, physically or through the phone. It increases the risk of messing things up, even if you’re a pro at cooking or talking on the phone.

Or think about when you’re working and your favorite song comes on. You feel the urge to sing along. And even though listening and singing along is enjoyable to us, it becomes a task for the brain. And inevitably, your other task – work takes a hit.

To find the science behind this fascinating process of multitasking and what happens in the brain, Eyal Ophir and his colleagues at Stanford wanted to find out what happens in the brain of multitaskers – or people who swear by multitasking.

Here’s what the researchers found

They (the multitaskers) couldn’t help thinking about the task they weren’t doing. The high multitaskers are always drawing from all the information in front of them. They can’t keep things separate in their minds.

Eyal Ophir, Stanford

What are multitasking skills? Do they exist?

Well, it all depends on what you want out of your time. Ask yourself what you are trying to achieve by multitasking.

Say you work two jobs. One full-time, and the other – freelancing on the side. Would it help if you just opened both in two separate tabs and worked on them simultaneously? For obvious reasons, both tasks would clash with each other when you navigate through. And switching tabs on a whim is just not an option.

Can we practice it at all, then?

If you do have to put multitasking skills into place – still taking the example of two jobs, you need to be smart about it. If your brain can take only one thing at a time to be efficient and quick, you need to put your priorities in place.

So, focus on one particular goal, and set a timeline for it. Stay away from your distracting phone. You could even shut the music off, or put something calm that will help you stay focused. And then just carry out the said task to completion.

Then, move on to the other task after a short break.

That is simply your best chance at multitasking, however many tasks you want to finish.

If you focus on efficiency on one task at a time, to your surprise, you’ll find you have more and more time if you shoo the distractions away!

And that is what pre emptive multitasking is too – in computers.

What is preemptive multitasking? What can we learn from that?

In technical terms, preemptive multitasking is when a computer operating system uses some criteria to decide how long to allocate to any one task before giving another task a turn to use the operating system.

So basically, do just that. Use the software (brain) that you have with as much efficiency as you can, by understanding it better and giving it what it needs, so it can give you what you need.

To put it simply, allocate time to one task, before giving another task a go.

So no matter what tasks you’re trying to complete, divide your day into the tasks you want to finish and how long each task might take. In the way of preemptive multitasking, start one thing and take it to completion, without switching to other things. And before you know it, you’ll have shut your desktop and have plenty of time to unwind after work, every day!

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