Focused vs. Unfocused Multitasking: When Multitasking Makes You Smarter and When It Interferes

I will admit: I am a prolific multitasker. There’s usually no less than 25 tabs open in my Firefox, along with my IM, FTP, ScribeFire software, Word, iTunes, etc. open. This is in addition to taking phone calls, talking with people, eating, and half a dozen other activities I am sure I embark upon while “working.”

This type of multitasking is dangerous to your productivity and even to your safety, though.

A highly circulated New Atlantis article on multitasking warns of the harm that can come of it.

For the younger generation of multitaskers, the great electronic din is an expected part of everyday life. And given what neuroscience and anecdotal evidence have shown us, this state of constant intentional self-distraction could well be of profound detriment to individual and cultural well-being. When people do their work only in the “interstices of their mind-wandering,” with crumbs of attention rationed out among many competing tasks, their culture may gain in information, but it will surely weaken in wisdom.

My friends over at Technotheory also advocate the same advice – if you’re doing a task, focus on that one, finish it, and then move on. As a result of their advice, I check my email less and less, but do it all in one burst. The same goes with my blogging – once I start, I don’t stop until I finish. But I haven’t completely transitioned to this way of thinking and because of that, projects such as my novel have suffered. Perhaps I’m just hardwired to switching tasks.

But I want to delve a step beyond these articles and these observations – when should you multitask and when should you become laser focused? Certainly not the easiest question to answer, but I’ll try. I believe there are circumstances where your utilization of time should include multitasking. Therefore, I divide multitasking into two categories

  • Multitasking during unfocused or passive tasks
  • Multitasking during focused or active tasks

Unfocused tasks are ones that perform very little strain on your mind while performing them. This includes things like driving, working out, long walks, eating, and resting. They’re mostly physical activities that don’t require you to think critically to complete.

Focused tasks require significant brain power to complete. This means things like writing, mathematics, personal conversations, and processing information.

You should always, at all times, be performing one, and only one, focused task. You’re wasting time and brain power if you’re not performing one active task and you’re wasting time if you’re performing more than one task. If I start surfing the Internet while writing this blog post, I’d be performing two focused tasks – Processing information and writing. You will work significantly slower and lose the momentum you’ve gained while writing or working doing this type of thing.

This is also why listening to music and driving/working/concentrating isn’t detrimental to your multitasking – generally music is “background” and, unless you’re trying to figure out the lyrics to a song, we’re trained to let the music pass us by just like most ambient noise. We’re not trying to actively process detailed information while listening to music, which is why I’m not troubled with writing this blog post while Queen plays through my headphones. Others are more distracted by the music, however, and that’s most likely why they study with silence.

What you should be doing in a multitask is gathering knowledge during your unfocused tasks. We almost always listen to music during two prominent unfocused tasks – working out and driving. Unlike cell phone use, which can be dangerous while driving because of the back-and-forth conversation, the fact that you’re not responding to the music makes it an unfocused task. But don’t do just music for these types of tasks – gain some knowledge in the process. Load your iPod or car with podcasts or audio books for these occasions. I have limited time to read, but I consistently get at least four hours in the gym a week to maintain my weight loss. To pass the time, I do either music, an audio book, or a podcast, especially when I’m on the treadmill or elliptical. You can get through a TwiT podcast in a single workout session or finish a book in one or two weeks (I just finished 1984 by George Orwell). You are actively processing information by your hearing while performing unfocused tasks with your touch and your sight.

This brings me to one additional point to multitasking: Only assign one task per sense, especially for hearing and vision. There’s a reason you shouldn’t read or text while driving – your eyes are focused on two different tasks at once, a dangerous combination. Drinking water from a water bottle is an unfocused task, which is why you can drink water, listen to a podcast, and walk at the same time without tripping. But try drinking water and listening to a podcast while writing a paper and you’ll either slow down your blogging or miss most of the important information in the podcast.

Driving while talking on a cell phone is one of the few anomalies that falls outside of my definitions – one task is audio and one task is visual, but it’s still dangerous to do both at the same time, even with a headset. The issue here is that, in conversation, we generally use our hearing and our sight in tandem because that’s how we’re trained to perform conversations. Thus our vision gets distracted with the conversation as it does with in-person conversations.

Overall, remember that multitasking isn’t a bad thing, but multitasking on two focused/active tasks is not only unproductive, but dangerous. Do just one focused task at a time. Email for an hour, write for two hours, design a webpage for two hours, hang out with your friends for the night. Hit a stopping point and then switch. Just don’t switch midway through or you’ll lose that momenting. In additon, try not to perform multiple tasks with the same sense, especially hearing and vision. This is when you lose your productivity and tread into dangerous waters that can lead to a pink slip or your ass in a hospital bed.

Disagree with me? Give me your best shot in the comments.