Organizing Our Time When Multi-Tasking Is Required

Previous healthymemory blog posts have discussed the costs of multi-tasking. Overall task performance suffers, and there are additional costs entailed in switching between tasks. Nevertheless, there are times when some type of multitasking is unavoidable, and they are discussed in the Organizing Out Time Chapter in Daniel J. Levitin’s book The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload. For example, creative solutions often arise from allowing a sequence of alterations between dedicated focus and daydreaming. Moreover, the brain’s arousal system has a novelty bias such that its attention can be easily highjacked by something new. Levitin maintains that humans will work just as hard to obtain a novel experience as we do to get a meal or a mate. The difficulty we have when trying to focus among competing activities is that the very brain region we rely on for staying on task is easily distracted by new stimuli to the detriment of our prefrontal cortex that wants to stay on task and gain the rewards of sustained effort and attention. We need to train ourselves to go for the long reward, and forgo the short one. Remember that the awareness of an unread email sitting in your inbox can effectively lower your IQ by as much as 10 points, and that multitasking causes information you want to learn to be directed to the wrong part of the brain.

Both our experience and research tells us that if we have chores to do, to put similar chores together. So if you have bills to pay, just pay the bills, don’t do anything else. Stay focused and maintain a single attentional set until the task is completed. Organizing our mental resources efficiently means providing slots in our schedules where we can maintain an attentional set for an extended period.

Performing most tasks requires flexible thinking and adaptiveness. The prefrontal cortex gives us the flexibility to change behavior based on context. The prefrontal cortex is necessary for adaptive strategies for daily life be it foraging for food on the savanna or living in skyscrapers in the city.

To reach our goals efficiently requires us to selectively focus on the features of a task that are most relevant to its completion, ignoring other features in the environment that our competing for our attention. What distinguishes experts from novices is that experts no which features are important and require attention.

We encode information in meaningful chunks, To manage our time efficiently we must organize and segment what we see and do into chunks of activity. Levitin uses Superman to illustrate this point. He might tell Lois Lane, “I’m off to save the world, honey,” but what he tells himself is the laundry list of chunked tasks that need to be done t accomplish that goal, each with a well-defined beginning and ending. (1. Capture Lex Luther. 2. Dispose of Kryptonite safely. 3. Hurl ticking time bomb into outer space. 4. Pick up clean cape from the dry cleaner). Chunking performs two important functions. It renders large-scale projects doable by providing well-differentiated tasks, and renders the experiences of our lives memorable by segmenting them into well-defined beginnings and endings. This allows memories to be stored and retrieved in manageable chunks.

The dedicated portion of our brains that partitions long events into chunks is in the prefrontal cortex. Hierarchies are created of this event segmentation without our thinking about them, and without instructing our brains to make them. We can review these representation in our mind’s eye from either direction—from the top down, from large time scales to small, or from bottom up, from small time scales to large. So, we should use our prefrontal cortex to best advantage, avoid multi-tasking unless it is necessary, and then multi-task in a strategic manner.


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