There Is a Right Way to Multitask, According to Brain Science

Yes, it’s possible to effectively do two things at once

Matthew Kent
Forge
Published in
3 min readSep 1, 2020

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Young woman multitasking talking on the phone while washing dishes.
Photo: 10'000 Hours/Getty Images

These days, my life feels like a jumble of more roles than I can keep track of: husband, father, employee, freelance writer. I’ve been trying to carve out time for myself, but there always seems to be something that needs my attention.

That’s why the idea of doing multiple things at a time seems more and more appealing — for example, I’ve been trying to get to the latest episode of my favorite podcast for what feels like forever, but if I can listen while performing some of the more routine tasks for my job as an analyst, I’ll likely be able to finish it sooner.

I know, I know — multitasking is bad. I’ve read the studies showing how it lowers your IQ and hinders your creativity. But is it always terrible? After looking at the brain science, I’ve found that there is a way to effectively do two things at once. You just have to understand the specific condition in which this can work.

Here’s what to know: You can do two things at once, but you can only focus on one at a time. For example, try listening to an audiobook while making a phone call. I can guarantee that if you’re really paying attention to the person you’re talking to, you’re going to miss enormous chunks of the book. But you can play the audiobook while, say, putting away the groceries, and you likely won’t miss a thing.

In his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel-prize-winning psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman details how our brains have two processing mechanisms: an older, faster, “automatic” system and a newer, rational, “controlled” system. Kahneman refers to these as System 1 (automatic) and System 2 (controlled).

In The Happiness Hypothesis, New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes the key distinction of “automatic processing” and “controlled processing” as it relates to multitasking:

Controlled processing is limited — we can…

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Matthew Kent
Forge
Writer for

Done settling for average. Now I have my sights set on awesome 😎 Get “The Ultimate Daily Checklist,” my free ebook on productivity: http://bit.ly/2pTziwr