How Neuroscience Can Help You Multitask the Right Way
Even if you think you’re terrible at multitasking
Most people fail at multitasking because they choose the wrong combination of tasks. Studies show that 97.5% of people can only focus attention on one thing at a time, and there’s ample evidence that if you switch your attention from one task to another, you end up performing both tasks poorly.
Still, that doesn’t mean multitasking is impossible. It’s true that focusing attention on multiple tasks at once is nearly impossible. But there are myriad productive tasks you can perform that don’t require conscious attention from your brain. Combine these tasks well, and you can indeed do multiple things at once without sacrificing your performance or burning yourself out. With a trick I’ll share below, you can even add in a third task without issue.
Multitasking is possible for nearly everyone. To do it right, though, you need to choose the right tasks, know yourself, and understand how your brain processes different kinds of information.
Understand Cognitive Load
To multitask well, you have to start with a basic understanding of the neuroscience of attention. When we focus on a task that requires a lot of cognitive focus — writing computer code, composing a song, or talking with a colleague, for example — we use our brains actively. Neurons in our visual or auditory cortexes synchronize their firing patterns, and higher-level brain areas associated with executive processing light up as well.
Because these kinds of attention-heavy tasks require the active engagement of our brains, neuroscientists say that the tasks have a high cognitive load. Do these kinds of cognitively intense tasks for long enough, and you’ll feel mentally exhausted and will need a break.
Because these tasks require a high cognitive load, most people can’t do more than one high-load at a time without their brains becoming overloaded. If you’ve ever tried to write an email while talking on the phone — or switch back and forth between coding and chatting with a co-worker — you know that performing multiple high-load tasks at the same time is nearly impossible.