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Multitasking – Yes or No? [Audio]

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Multitasking Man

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Thanh: Hey Guys. Welcome to AsianEfficiency.com. I’m Thanh.

Aaron: I’m Aaron.

Thanh: Today we are going to talk about multitasking – if it’s a good thing, or a bad thing. So Aaron, what do you think multitasking is and how do you define it?

Aaron: I define multitasking as doing more than one thing at a time. So the most common example nowadays would be you’re at your computer, you’re writing something or researching something and at the same time you are also on Instant Messenger or you’re on Facebook, you are checking out the latest news, you’re checking out the latest reviews for video games. You basically have like 15 different things open while you are supposedly working on one thing.

Thanh: The thing is, like some people see it as a good thing, some people see that as a bad thing. So we are kind of like trying to inform you of what we think of it, and if it’s good or bad. Multitasking can be a good thing, but the norm is that it’s a bad thing. Now the reason I say that is, our brain is really hardwired for handling one task at a time. You will see people who do two things at the same time, but what actually happens In your brain is that it switches between tasks really, really fast. Evolutionarily, we are hardwired just to do one thing at a time. That is why when people aren’t allowed to text when they are driving, because you cannot focus on your mobile phone while you’re driving, that is why there are so many accidents. Because our brain cannot process two tasks at the same time.

Aaron: Yea, I think what Thanh said about the general rule being no to multitask, there are some exceptions to it. Most notably, I guess we’ll talk about them, they usually involve tasks where you’re not using a lot of brain power. Like for example, the most common one that we have is when you’re eating breakfast, you have… I know that I like to watch talks online, like TED Talks, or listen to audio books when I am eating breakfast. I know you –
Thanh.: Yea, I like to check Facebook while I’m eating my breakfast, because I know that checking Facebook, you know, doesn’t require that much attention. Just to read my friend, Joe, said that he got laid last night doesn’t really require much brain power.

Aaron: No, that really doesn’t, putting food in your mouth and digesting it, so –

Thanh: Yea, and also it is kind of boring if you just eat your food, because there is nothing else to do. And that’s why I love my iPad, because then I can just watch shared videos while I am eating my breakfast.

Aaron: Yea. Probably the other time I multitask a lot is when I am in transit; like when I’m on a bus or on a train or I’m flying. I know that you live in L.A., so you drive.

Thanh: Yea, I drive a lot, so I like to use my time efficiently when I’m driving. So what I like to do is I put audio books in my car. So what you can do is either buy the audio books on CD or you put them on your iPhone, or iPod or MP3 player and then hook them up to your car. Now one thing I’ve noticed is that because you’re driving, your concentration, your focus is not 100% on the audio. What I found was, that it takes like multiple listening sessions before you really get the full effect of the audio book, compared to when you just lay in bed and all you do is focus on the audio book. So if you do listen to audio books when you’re driving, make sure you listen to it a couple more times because I’ve noticed that every single time I listen to the same audio book, I always pick different things up from the audio book.

Aaron: And while we are on the topic of listening, when I work, I like to listen to music. Now that’s not just say that that’s a necessarily good thing, because your brain still is switching between listening to the music and what you’re working on. The way I guess I sort of got around that was, if I’m working on something where I have to depend on verbal skills, like if I’m writing an articles or if I’m researching something, then I’ll listen to music that doesn’t have a lot of vocals in it. And by that I mean it doesn’t have lyrics to it, so I will listen to something instrumental, or to house music, or something where my auditory sense is still being engaged but I can really focus on what I’m doing, which is writing.

Thanh: I agree. Like, I like listening to music too when I’m working. But the only time is, when I really have to focus on things, like if I really have to write this article for the website, or I really have to write a long email, then I’d rather turn on the music, because I would rather have my full attention on that. But, if I’m doing tasks where there isn’t that much focus involved, then I’d rather listen to music where there’s not a lot of vocals. Because that, in my experience, kind of gives me the productivity because I don’t have to worry about what people are saying actually. Whereas, if you listen to pop music or R&B or Hip Hop, then there’s a lot of lyrics involved that are a big role of the song. I’d rather avoid those when I am working because I don’t want to focus on the lyrics because then my brain will mentally switch.

Aaron: Yea, probably the popular time I see a lot of people doing this, is when you’re at the gym, and say you’re on the treadmill, a lot of people do have their iPods and they usually listen to music. If I were to do that, I would probably listen to audio books or something and use my time more productively. But, I don’t know, if my actual research out of this is that, you get more from exercising by actually concentrating on what you are doing than engaging your mind doing other things.

Thanh: The thing is, with multitasking, and this is the problem, that because you’re switching between tasks the whole time, there’s a lot of overhead. Right, so every time, you are focusing on writing an article, then something else comes up, you have to mentally switch. If you do that a lot of times, it will kind of like tax your brain a lot more. But also the time that you switch every single time, it’s kind of like a reset almost. So let’s say you’re writing an article and, I don’t know, where someone comes in your office and talks about something and then leaves, when you get back to writing the article you’ve kind of like lost momentum, you kind of lost that flow. So, every time you get back to your article, you kind of have to start again, it’s kind of like a reboot almost. So that is why we say that multitasking is a bad thing because if you have to switch back and forth the whole time, then the start up costs of getting fully engaged again, mentally switching the whole time, can really kill your productivity.

Aaron: Yea. I mean, what we’re talking about here is interruptions, right. Instant Messenger is an interruption, you really shouldn’t have instant messenger on when you’re working on something on your computer. You know, just for fun, I tried it again the other day. I was talking to a couple of friends in Hong Kong and I was like type, type, type, type, message pops up, type in message for about 2 minutes and then switch back. And then at the end of half an hour, it was like, ‘Wait, I haven’t actually written anything of value here. I’ve just been switching between windows on my computer the whole time.’ It just doesn’t work. And until you try to work without all the distractions and interruptions you really don’t see how valuable it is to have like an interruption-free environment. I turn off my cell phone when I am working as well.

Thanh: Any interruption will kill your productivity. So what you want to do is kind of like firewall your attention. One of the things that we like to do is called the Pomodoro technique. What it does is basically it’s kind of like a timebox technique, where you say to yourself, “I’m going to work ‘x’ amount of minutes on this one task and that’s about it, that’s all I’m going to do.” So, with the Pomodoro technique, what it does is, you set aside 25 minutes and you say to yourself, “Okay, in those 25 minutes all I’m going to do is this task, nothing else. “Okay? The reason this works is because, 1) you’re not multitasking, because you’re focusing on the task at hand, and 2) you only do this for 25 minutes. So that’s good enough to be fully engaged, but also not short enough where you don’t feel like you’re not getting work done.

Aaron: Yea, and I believe that you actually have an entire article written about how to use Pomodoros properly.

Thanh: Yea. Like I just finished an article, you can find it on AsianEfficiency.com. Just search for Pomodoro and you’ll see it.

Aaron: People who are organized tend not to multitask. So for example, if you have a task you have to complete at your computer, you know exactly what browser windows you need open, you know exactly what applications you need open, and everything else is closed. Instant messenger is off, your Facebook is closed, your phone is on silent and you focus just entirely on the one thing rather than try to work out what it is you’re doing next. To clarify it, multitasking doesn’t mean that when you work on something you have an absolute blaze of focus intensity and you completely ignore everything else. I mean it is still fine to get up and stretch, to take a drink of water, to breathe, those things are all necessary to work effectively. But what it does mean is that you’re trying to remove all the interruptions that are completely unnecessary towards getting the work done.

Thanh: Okay, just to wrap up. There are some good things about multitasking and there are some bad things about multitasking. Now the general rule is, it is a bad thing. The overhead cost of switching the whole time, restarting your task the whole time, not focusing completely at your work and the task at hand. Now the good things are that you can multitask when you have to do certain things that don’t require a lot of focus. Like we mentioned earlier, watching a video while you’re eating breakfast for example. How do you catch yourself doing this when you’re multitasking? The easiest way for me personally to do this, I consider multitasking when I know what I’m supposed to do right now and I’m not doing it. For example, if I’m writing an article right now and I’m catching myself doing something else besides that, that’s me multitasking, that’s me killing productivity.

Aaron: Yea, what I find is that if I set out to do something and then I think well this should take me about an hour to finish. When I get to the end of the hour and I haven’t done it, then I look back and I actually spent 5 minutes looking at this, and then another 2 looking at that, then I’ve probably been multitasking when I shouldn’t have been. That’s how I catch myself doing it, by accident sometimes.

Thanh: So what you’ll want to do is try to figure out what your most important tasks are and try to focus just on doing those. Try to see what tasks can be multitasked where you can maybe listen to music or do other things at the same time.

Aaron: Yea. Something else that you have to take away is that when you start working on something, try to work out in advance what you need to do that task, have all the books ready, have the research ready, have the information you need to complete it ready. That way you know that everything else outside of that is really just an interruption to completing that particular activity.

Thanh: Yes. If you need to write an article, just have your Word document open or your pages and that’s it.

Aaron: Yep.

Thanh: Alright. That’s us on multitasking. Take care and we’ll see you next time.

Aaron: See you next time guys.

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