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September 5, 2022

Multitasking Is A Myth

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Life feels busier than ever and we're trying to get as much done as possible so we don’t fall behind. We can all remember that time we were brushing our teeth while doing a squat workout and preparing breakfast, right? As much of an exaggeration as that is, we do find ourselves multitasking very often trying to manage so many things all at once.

But contrary to what we’ve learned and believed we’ve been doing for years, multitasking is impossible. It’s a myth. The conscious brain is only capable of executing one function at any one time. If you don’t believe me, try rotating your right foot in a clockwise direction and then writing the number 6 in the air with your right hand. You can’t do it! And that’s because the brain is occupied with one single task, which causes your foot to adjust to going counterclockwise instead.

You may disagree with this and recall instances when you’ve successfully had your focus on multiple things at the same time. In fact we do this every day! But it’s not multitasking. What’s actually happening is something called task-switching. You can effectively manage multiple tasks at the same time, but your attention is switching from one task to another in micro moments rather than being held in the conscious mind simultaneously.

A leader of the Navy SEAL community, Rich Diviney, references task-switching in his book “Attributes”. He considers it a mental acuity characteristic, and he defines it as an ability to shift focus among tasks back and forth. When someone can do this quickly and efficiently, they are better at doing what we call “multitasking”.

To put it another way, managing multiple tasks is more about switching focus than it is splitting focus, and these switches occur so fast that we aren’t even aware it’s happening. 

Now to make this more applicable for you, let’s relate this with managing distractions. Sometimes you focus shifts without your intention to do so. Like when you’re in the middle of a task and your phone buzzes with a message. When that happens you must redirect your attention back to the task at hand, but often you return to that task less effectively. This is because your brain is still trying to accommodate for the disruption, so it keeps unconsciously flipping back to the text message and consuming your mental energy. This is called “attention residue” and it makes it more difficult to perform well in a task.

So eliminate distractions whenever you can to prevent your attention from being hijacked, and cultivate this attribute of task-switching to increase your cognitive capabilities.

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