the key to multitasking. how to multitask well header image

THE KEY TO MULTITASKING: How to multitask well?

For a long time, I considered myself the multitasking master.

And I wasn’t alone in thinking this. Many of my friends heralded me on this as well. They’ve asked me “how do you multitask so well?” or “how are you even able to do that?” They would complain about not being able to do the same.

All of that just fed my ego. I was determined to keep multitasking and show off this skill.

But in the last few months I learnt something. It’s not that I’m good at keeping track of multiple things at the same time, or do multiple things just fine with lesser focus. It’s that I learnt what tasks to multitask with.

I came across Jay Shetty’s podcast where he says that most people who think they multitask well, actually don’t. They would do better uni-tasking if they tried it.

So I tried it. I wanted to prove to myself that I’m one of the few who is good at it. And then I found that I’m not actually good at multitasking sometimes.

The key word here is SOMETIMES. At times, multitasking definitely increased my productivity, and other times it decreased my productivity. How do I know when to do what, then?

the key to multitasking. how to multitask well

None of us are taught how to multi-task. None of us are trained on splitting our focus between multiple activities. We learn by trying. But a lot of people give up saying they don’t know how to multitask.

Multitasking is a strategy. It’s a method which, when formed and used well, increases your productivity.

By trial and error, I figured out how to increase my multitasking productivity further. And I’m going to share that with you today.



THE KEY TO MULTITASKING HOW TO MULTITASK WELL

I will tell you how to get better at multitasking below but first let’s get something straight.

What is multitasking?

Multitasking is the act of doing more than one task at a time.

I know I know, you’re rolling your eyes and saying “that’s obvious”. But there are many different types of multitasking.

You could be multitasking on a small level, by responding to texts when listening to music. Or you could be multitasking on a bigger level, like taking a call when editing a document.

All of us multitask on some level ALL THE TIME. We have multiple thoughts running in our head. As I’m writing this post, I can suddenly remember that I kept the stove on and run to switch it off.

There are tonnes of articles that talk about advantages of multitasking or the disadvantages of multitasking. But there is no conclusion, and that’s because they are all thinking this: either you can multitask, or you can’t.

But that’s not how it is. You CAN multitask. Everyone can.

The problem is finding out at which level our productivity declines. The line of distinction may be different for different people. You have to find out which is yours and work at keeping your productivity high.

person working on laptop
THE KEY TO MULTITASKING HOW TO MULTITASK WELL

Fun fact: multitasking in human behaviour and multitasking in computers is visually similar. In fact, the same terms are often used to describe both. As a computer science student, these similarities are interesting to me.

While the same terms are used for both, the process of multitasking in computers and humans is VERY different. This article by Bryan Braun explains it well.


For the purpose of this post, I’m dividing multitasking activities into TWO CATEGORIES.

ACTIVE-PASSIVE MULTITASKING

Let’s consider an example where you are drinking coffee while reading a book.

The active task is reading the book. You are reading with concentration and absorbing information. It requires considerable attention.

The passive task is drinking coffee. It doesn’t require a lot of attention. In fact, it barely takes away your concentration from the book. You can do this task without actually thinking much.

This multitasking is not hurting anyone, and it’s definitely not distracting you from your book. It’s not reducing your productivity level.

Active-passive multitasking level basically means that a major part of your focus is on ONE ACTIVE TASK. The simultaneous other tasks performed are PASSIVE and don’t require continuous attention, or considerable attention.

person working on laptop with a drink
THE KEY TO MULTITASKING HOW TO MULTITASK WELL

Active-passive multitasking is GOOD. If you performed these passive tasks alone, giving them your 100%, you would be under-utilizing your time and energy.

One can argue that doing multiple passive tasks together can also increase productivity, which is true.

But as human beings we generally prioritize when we are multitasking, and we subconsciously make one task as the “active” one, by giving it more attention. That’s why there is no passive-passive multitasking level. It’s always at least active-passive.

Here is an article on passive multitasking, if you’d like to understand and utilize it better.

ACTIVE-ACTIVE MULTITASKING

Active-active multitasking involves multitasking with MORE THAN ONE “IMPORTANT” TASK. These important tasks are anything that requires considerable mental focus and energy.

Having a conference call while simultaneously making notes is active-active multitasking. Cooking two dishes at once is active-active multitasking. Listening to a podcast while studying is active-active multitasking.

Sometimes active-active multitasking is required, but they are generally NOT GOOD.

Each of the tasks require considerable focus but receive partial focus. This leads to all of these tasks taking longer and not being done well.

cluttered desk space
THE KEY TO MULTITASKING HOW TO MULTITASK WELL

If you’ve ever read articles on the topic of multitasking, you might have come across the term “context switching”.

WHAT IS CONTEXT SWITCHING?

Context switching is when you shift your focus from one activity to another.

Here’s an example situation. You’re studying a topic. It has most of your focus, if not all. Then suddenly you realize that you have to send an important email. It will take just 10 minutes. Hence, you hit pause on your studying and “switch” to writing the email. After finishing that, you “switch back” to studying.

The switching between activities takes some amount of energy and concentration. You have to actively hit pause on the first task, remember where to pick it back from, and then shift your focus to the second task.

When you’re multitasking between “active tasks”, your timeline goes like this:

Focus on task 1 –> pause task 1 and remember where to start back from –> get things ready for task 2 –> focus on task 2.

Everything between “focus on task 1” and “focus on task 2” comes under context switching. Context switching involves loss of time and energy. Bryan Braun’s article explains context switching in detail.

person working on their desk with a planner and laptop
THE KEY TO MULTITASKING HOW TO MULTITASK WELL

Active-Active multitasking involves a lot of content switching. If both or all your tasks take a long time to complete, the cost of context switching is high.

Studies have also shown that getting back to an active task after doing something else requires conscious effort. Returning to your first task after focusing on another task takes around 20 minutes. This is because your concentration was broken and has to be developed again.

The people who have studied multitasking trends in their lives, and what makes them more productive, would say that the best way to multitask is multitasking with the cost of context switching in mind.

So, what IS the key to multitasking?

I wrote a very long introduction to get to this point, but I promise I’m going to bring it all together in this section.

The key to multitasking is a good strategy.

Having a good multitasking strategy can immensely increase your productivity. This strategy includes two things.

And I am going to tell you that strategy in TWO sentences.

  1. Always try to do active-passive multitasking. This is a very easy way to increase productivity. Keep ONE task as your “active” task which will require considerable amount of time and/or energy. Pair it with one or (maximum) two passive tasks. But also make sure that the active tasks here CAN be paused multiple times.
  2. Only do active-active multitasking if it is REQUIRED or the cost of switching is low. Never pair two tasks that require concentration. Context switching WILL be high because your concentration has to be developed again and again. Only pair these when you can’t avoid it, like in work meetings.

And that’s it.

Once you understand what tasks make up active-passive and what are active-active, it will become very easy for you to decide on WHEN to multitask. That is your strategy.

Doing two active tasks alone one after the other will take lesser time than doing them together.

Unitasking is much better in such cases.

An easy way to pair active-passive activities is pairing audio activities to visual activities. For example, cooking and listening to a podcast, taking a call when doing chores etc.

Examples of active tasks that you SHOULD NOT multitask: studying, writing, working on a project etc. Notice that all of these tasks are ones that require proper concentration and require good results. They have to be done well.


THE KEY TO MULTITASKING: HOW TO MULTITASK WELL
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Conclusion

The key to multitasking is being conscious of how you multitask i.e. what tasks you choose to do together.

Once you start consciously understanding what tasks go well together and what don’t, it will become easier to make decisions on multitasking. Eventually, you’ll do it without thought.

Conscious effort is only required at the start.


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Do you consider yourself to be a good multitasker? Do you have any tips for multitasking?

3 thoughts on “THE KEY TO MULTITASKING: How to multitask well?”

  1. This is a great post, especially as I’m about to start my next semester! I used to think I was good at multitasking . . . until I realized I was not, haha! Isn’t how it always goes. This post was awesome!! You put in a lot of effort into research and writing it, and it shows: I learned something from it!!

    Thank you for sharing what you’ve learned!

    Like

  2. This is super informative. I definitely was one who believed I was a great multi tasker. And sometimes maybe I am but other times like you I believe I have actually sabotaged myself. Very interesting read and great writing 😁

    Liked by 1 person

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