Some 2.5 percent of people are thought to be supertaskers — people who excel at multitasking. And we can use some of their strategies to boost our own skills, says psychiatrist Srini Pillay.
When you need to respond to an email while you’re on the telephone, you have to read, write and listen at the same time. Frequently, however, your brain can do only one task at a time properly. It’s as if there’s one checkpoint, and tasks that need to be done have to arrange themselves in a single file in your brain.
When many tasks try to squeeze through a bottleneck, the results can be disastrous. Think of driving from an on-ramp onto a jam-packed highway. That’s what every new thought faces. It slows down, and eventually the brain becomes a parking lot for thoughts. That’s when you drop the multitasking, when instead you should see this as a signal to switch to the mode that I call “supertasking.”
Supertasking is like switching over to a juggler’s mindset. A juggler does not have to think hard about making each catch and throw — her unconscious plays a greater role in her thinking, allowing her to be more flexible when needed. In 2015, UCSF neuroscientist Omar Al-Hashimi and his colleagues examined how certain people’s brains overcome bottlenecks — how they deftly switch brain lanes and somehow find a way through. They used the video game NeuroRacer, in which players perform single tasks and then work up to multi-component tasks. For example, players have to keep a car within a target box while also responding to various road signals; the signals increase in number as the game gets harder. As the number of things players have to pay attention to increases, an information bottleneck is created in their brains.
Some of the players had superior multitasking performance. They had faster response times, made fewer errors, and were more accurate. The researchers noted that the superior parietal lobule (SPL) was key, helping them quickly switch between tasks by loosening the grip of focus. The SPL also efficiently manages brain resources by keeping things for a longer time in short-term memory so that the person can, effectively, pick up where they left off more easily.
Unfocusing on your separate goals and tinkering with them to see which ones can be combined will decongest your bottleneck in the short term.
One way to reduce bottlenecks is through redundancy reduction — combining one or more tasks to save time. If your day’s tasks include picking up a friend and going to a supermarket near that friend’s house, you focus and notice their commonality — both require you to drive through the same neighborhood. Even though stopping to consciously think through ways to reduce redundancies might take time at first, taking the step of unfocusing on your separate goals and tinkering with them to see which ones can be combined will decongest your bottleneck in the short term. With practice, it becomes much more automatic.
You can also integrate the tasks on your to-do list and manage bottlenecks. I witnessed this kind of cognitive flexibility in action while having dinner at a friend’s home. As I stood with her in the kitchen, I watched her put a casserole in the oven, put leftover roast chicken and vegetables in a frying pan on the stovetop, fry some bacon, and warm up leftover mashed potatoes in the microwave. She did all this while talking to me and attending to her daughter, who came in intermittently to ask some oddly (but nonetheless charming) existential questions.
Cool, calm and collected, my friend got into the rhythm of each action, not doing one thing at a time but starting and stopping at will. I could see her cognitive wheels turning. The casserole went in first. Intermittently, she checked on it and changed the oven temperature when she needed to. Halfway there, she put the chicken and vegetables in a pan over medium heat. She left them for about ten minutes, turning them every now and then. A few minutes before everything was ready, she put the bacon on.
When I finally saw the roast chicken, bacon, mashed potatoes, vegetables and casserole on my plate, I realized that she was the bottleneck master. In and out, back and forth, tinker and wait — cognitive rhythm saved the day. She smoothly switched between tasks in a way made possible not just by practice but by being willing to leave things halfway in the process and then return to them.
Without feedback, your brain loses track of its own results. That makes multitasking more difficult.
You need to be flexible and go back and forth between multiple things without obsessing about completing each thing first. Although my friend’s dinner came together swiftly, she would not have cooked the food so well had she not continuously sought feedback — prodding the chicken, checking on the casserole. Without feedback, your brain loses track of its own results. That makes multitasking more difficult.
But it turns out that the scope of feedback that you allow yourself to consider is meaningful. Cognitive science researcher Hansjörg Neth of University of Konstanz, Germany, and his colleagues compared local and global feedback in the context of multitasking. They used a computer program called Tardast, aptly named after the Persian term for “juggler,” to investigate multitasking behavior, complex system management, and constant supervision.
During the experiment, the researchers presented the participants with 10 trials via a computer screen. For each five-minute trial, the participants had to manage six tasks. Performing a “task” meant pressing a button to fill up a vertical white bar with black. Pressing the button raised the level, while releasing the button caused the level to fall. The participants’ goal was to get the black to rise to the highest level within each vertical bar. They had to press the button quickly to get the level to rise, and they could press buttons only one at a time and in quick sequence. But some bars were more difficult to fill than others, and all the bars increased and decreased at different speeds. After each five-minute trial, participants received feedback on how they had done.
The researchers found any feedback improved multitasking, but local feedback (how the person did on the last trial) was superior to global feedback (how they had done all day). In the kitchen, as my friend cooked dinner and prodded the chicken to check for doneness, she was getting feedback that helped her determine how much longer to cook it. Had she prodded it and then considered all her previous prods, she would have gotten caught up in feedback analysis. As it happened, her quest for feedback was not deep or far-reaching. She kept her mind on the present texture of the chicken and moved on. And that served her (and me) well.
Don’t just take it for granted that your brain is updating information as you go — stop and think about what you just did and how it relates to what you have to do next.
Without feedback, your brain gets overwhelmed. If you feel like you have a billion things to do in the course of a day, dipping into conscious feedback is a way of taking stock. Don’t just take it for granted that your brain is updating information as you go along. Give it local feedback — stop and think about what you just did and how it relates to what you have to do next. This momentary period of unfocus will allow you to tinker with your approach to make it better.
But asking the right questions — ones that bring local feedback to bear — is key. The ER physician who is inundated with trauma-related procedures might say to herself, “Three down, seven to go.” That is global feedback, an emphasis on the full day’s work. Or she might say, “That last one went well,” which is local feedback, emphasizing just the last task. The ER doctor who gets a little more specific with her local feedback — “That last one went well, but next time make sure all the dried blood has been cleared so there’s not even a speck before you suture” — allows her work to improve. Taking time to give this feedback may stop the flow of her work in the short term, but it allows her to tinker with the lineup of sutures so that each successive one is better yet requires that much less conscious brainpower the next time.
When you practice thinking this way, it trains your brain for supertasking. And when you’re in supertasking mode, your brain helps you remember half-completed tasks while you move on so that you can return to them. It helps you remember not to leave something on the stove when the phone rings. It also helps you re-strategize about pending goals as you go along.
Excerpted with permission from the new book Tinker, Dabble, Doodle, Try: Unlocking the Power of the Unfocused Mind by Srini Pillay. Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint and division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Copyright © 2017 by Srini Pillay. All rights reserved.