Optimize your life #5 – Successful multitasking

As I’ve mentioned before, it’s difficult for us, as mere human beings, to maintain our effectiveness when we try to switch rapidly between multiple tasks.  It’s nothing to be ashamed of…it’s just how the species is wired.  We’re not computers, after all.

Still, it would be a mistake to say that people should never multitask.  Situations exist where multitasking actually makes sense.

For example, take the following combinations of activities.

1. Eating and talking to friends or colleagues
2. Exercising and watching TV
3. Driving and listening to audio books

All of the above combinations work relatively well together.  If multitasking is bad, then why does exercising and watching TV seem OK on an instinctual level?

Successful multitasking has a simple general pattern.  To multitask effectively, you simply combine an activity which requires minimal mental involvement with another activity that requires minimal to moderate involvement.

Luckily or unluckily, people often have to perform a lot of activities that don’t take a lot of brainpower.  It is precisely during these types of activities where we have the opportunity to take back the most time.  The big benefit of multitasking is that if you combine two activities into the same period of time, you’re basically getting an extra life-enhancing activity in for free.  Multitasking may not be the best idea when you’re trying to compose an artfully thought out e-mail, but there’s no such thing watching TV badly.

One last note…it’s also possible to multitask when you’ve trained enough in a particular situation to the point where doing the right thing is like being on autopilot.  The best analogy I can use is the act of learning to ride a bicycle or play a video game.  Many activities that require some thinking up front eventually require little to no conscious mental involvement once we’ve familiarized ourselves with the activity.  A beginner at chess is just thinking about which pieces are allowed to move where.  An expert, on the other hand, has those details on autopilot.  He’s able to think about a whole range of other things like what the opponent is going to do next, the relative strength of his current position, past similar situations and how they turned out, etc.

Of course, training to the level of an expert can take a lot of effort and time, and in any situation that requires a little creativity, you have to bring your full attention back to the situation at hand.

Anyway, hopefully you now understand that multitasking definitely has its merits when done correctly.  We’ll talk in the next article about one of my favorite ways to multitask…listening to audio books and driving to work.

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