We are a multi-tasking society. This whole concept of accomplishing multiple things at once is so pervasive in our culture that I think, to a point, we’ve almost come to revere it. And in fact, I am a queen of multi-tasking with the kind of life I lead. I think multi-tasking is great. Except when it isn’t.
There are some times when multi-tasking is great. Listening to music or reading during a workout (big one for me). Chatting with folks online while doing work on the computer. Talking on the phone (hands free, of course) while sitting in gridlock traffic. Working on another project while one is processing (when you do a lot of data analysis, this is a big one).
Multi-tasking works in these cases because one activity is relatively passive to the other.
When multi-tasking breaks down is when both activities require actual ATTENTION. Because the brain is not designed for split attention. This is why things like texting and driving don’t mix (and there have actually been studies that show that you are as much, if not more impaired texting while driving than over the legal limit of alcohol).
This is why I DESPISE the phone. Because I have to stop everything I’m doing to talk. I can’t do chores or cook or write because whoever is on the other end expects me to pay attention and not make a bunch of racket. Whereas with online chatting and Twitter, I can reply when I have an iota of a brain cell to spare, talk to SEVERAL people at once, and STILL get all my stuff done and nobody knows (unless I tell them) or cares that I’m cooking dinner, doing dishes, or any of the other 8 million things I’m usually popping in and out to do in the background. It is one of my great goals in life to get my mother on chat instead of the phone.
What does all this have to do with efficiency? Well the take home message here is to know when to multi-task and know when to just stop and do one thing start to finish just to get it done. Because focusing entirely on one thing usually means you can get that thing done faster and more efficiently than if you are trying to divide your brain among several attention-requiring tasks.
Think of it like this. When you have an internet connection, you have a limited amount of bandwidth (this is your BRAIN in this analogy). Now you can use that bandwidth to do all kinds of stuff: check email, chat, hang out on Twitter, shop at Amazon, stream a movie from Hulu, process data packets for SETI. Ever notice how the more you’re doing online, the slower your internet connection seems to be? It’s because you’re having to split that limited bandwidth over multiple activities. If you’ve got some ginormous update to download, that’s when you typically quit everything else you’re trying to do in order to make it faster. Your brain is the same way.
Prioritize your activities, make the most of your finite brainwidth, and you’ll get a lot more accomplished in the same span of time.