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

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

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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 think consciously about one thing at a time only — but automatic processes run in parallel and can handle many tasks at once. If the mind performs hundreds of operations each second, all but one of them must be handled automatically.

If you’re going to do two things at once, they can’t compete for the same cognitive resources because the controlled system can only handle one thing at a time. In his book Indistractable, Nir Eyal has a name for the right way of multitasking: “multichannel multitasking.” It’s when you pair a focused task with an automatic task. Some examples:

  • Having a walking meeting (walking can actually lift our creative thinking)
  • Listening to a podcast while doing the dishes
  • Working out on an elliptical machine while dictating notes with an audio recording app

You’ll notice that in all of these examples, the automatic task involves using your body. Most of the time, the movement of your body is governed by your automatic system, especially when you’re performing a task that’s familiar or routine. (Read: I wouldn’t recommend multitasking when attempting a death-defying skateboard stunt for the first time.)

So how do you know for certain whether you’ve selected two tasks that are suitable for multitasking? Ask yourself these questions: First, can you do both things at the exact same time while devoting adequate attention to each? If at any point you are “switching” between one thing and another, you’re wasting your precious cognitive resources and would be better off doing the tasks sequentially. That’s why you should close your tabs already. You should also stop trying to write and edit your work at the same time. Write your first draft, and then go into editing mode and clean it up.

Another useful question to ask: Do both tasks require language? If a task requires you to talk, listen, or write, your brain is engaged in controlled processing. Therefore, if you try to watch a show while writing up a report, both tasks will suffer.

Multitasking isn’t always bad — you just have to make sure the conditions are right. If you feel like you’re straining, switch to a single task. Or simply take a break.

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