Human Multitasking: A guide on how to truly multitask

There are a lot of opinions on whether multitasking is possible or not. The answer is both Yes & No. However, true multitasking is a little different from quick and efficient task-switching. Most of us refer to task switching when we speak of multitasking. This post is going to show you how to multitask when it is possible. Human multitasking depends on the nature of tasks and ones mental capacity to streamline attention for efficient task switching.

We have one brain, and as a biological system, there is competition to maximize the use of available resources. Paying attention demands resources so it is natural for the brain to pay attention to one thing at a time instead of two. Attention is an ‘executive function’ that we deliberately direct somewhere and it can also be unconsciously hijacked.

Take, for example, reading the menu card (executive) at a bar and then your eye turns (unconscious) toward that attractive human that walked by. While there are many arguments in favor of multi-tasking and people claiming to be good at it, there is no real multitasking in a parallel way. We can’t direct executive attention at 2 places at the same time. That seems to be a biological limitation.


Can humans multitask? 2 empirical findings:

  1. There is a lot of research showing that multitasking leads to a loss in productivity for at least one of the task(s).
  2. There is also some research showing that there are some people who can multitask because their brains can direct executive attention at 2 places with ease.

As with what I feel? The truth is somewhere in between those 2 extremes. We just don’t have a good enough model to account for all variables to explain both these observations effectively.

Because you have executive attention directed toward ONE thing and you want to execute TWO or more things, I’ve developed a workaround framework which I often use!


Learn how to multitask in 3 steps

Note: This isn’t a quick hack. This guide will be a training to multitask sort of a guide. You won’t get there right away but you will be able to multitask with some practice. I’d love to hear about your successes or roadblocks. Do comment with your story.

This multitasking training is perfect for musicians and artists. It is less than perfect for those who want to be a computer.

Tip: Don’t be a computer. You are human and have awesome unique abilities. Hone them instead.


Step 1: Automation of tasks

Automate the tasks: You do this by rehearsing them in a very deliberate way and get good at it. As you rehearse, an automation routine begins. You can automate simple tasks like balancing a pencil to more complex things like a recitation of the alphabet in reverse order by skipping one in between. Once you practice your task which can be ‘looped’, you generate a neural signal which acts like an ‘on switch’, once you turn it on, the looped routine can begin. Building this ‘on switch’ is important. As you practice something more and, the neural circuitry to accomplish it also responds faster to your on-switch.

This optimization occurs for both mental and motor skills.It becomes a ready-to-go system.  ……… Let’s say you have now built your on-switch which triggers the process of Task 1. You can automate physical tasks as well as mental tasks like solving equations. You just need to do them often so that your brain has a minimized & optimized circuitry that triggers the task. A by-product of this process is that the task also becomes intuitive, you just automatically know what’s happening!

These automatic processes can be called chunks.

Can humans multitask? Here is a guide on how to multitask effectively.

Key concepts: 

  1. The on-switch – this one is created when you learn to automate a task. It’s the ‘ok go’ signal by the brain’.
  2. Task trigger – it is the actual start of the process that has some real world outcome, like words coming out of your mouth. 

More the practice, better the optimization, lesser the energy needed to do the task.


Step 2: Attention Management

Attention is your Manager: Use your executive attention as a manager, not an attender. Once you automate your tasks individually, all you need is a good manager sitting in your head (attention) to oversee how the 2 automatic tasks run. Quite often, there would be a clash between the tasks. Your attention has to make sure that clash does not happen by involving itself in a feedback mechanism with the task.

Say you are juggling (Task 1) and reciting a sonnet (Task 2). There can be a clash when you juggle and a particularly hard to pronounce phrase comes up (tongue twister type). Your attention system should be locked in feedback to ensure that you are on the right track on the more difficult task. Every important change that takes place in the task should be noticeable and adjustable as soon as possible. That’s a powerful feedback mechanism to help you manage your tasks. Attention management is key to human multitasking.


Step 3: Attention Shifting

With this step, you’ll actually learn how to multitask similar to those people who can play 2 guitars at the same time or can dance and do mental math.

Attention shifting: This is the misleading aspect of multitasking. One does not do 2 tasks in parallel that need executive attention, one only needs to shift between the tasks fast enough that your attention (manager) can ensure that the automatic task triggers are in place. This shifting can feel like fatigue, but, it is easy once you have executed step one, automation, well.  The more you automate, the more time you get. Why? The experience of time for the brain is a function of how much information is being actively represented by your brain in terms of memory. Automation leads to lesser time & energy so time is experienced quickly. That means, you probably experience lesser time than you actually have to complete the task. Thus, you have extra time to consciously attend!

A useful concept in shifting attention is finding ‘markers’. These markers are essentially moments in your multitasking that you verify to be correct.  Once you verify them to be correct, you can follow the 2 or more tasks in parallel until you reach the next marker. The markers are best suited to be complex moments or difficult areas while multitasking.

Understanding the experience of time is key to human multitasking.


A simple formula to understand the experience of time:

Experienced time for task = Te

Time you think you get to use your attention wisely = Tw

Total time for task = TT

As practice increases, automation leads to lesser energy needs, thus, time experienced to complete would be lesser when rehearsed as compared with doing it for the first time.

TT = Te + Tw,  the smaller Te gets, the bigger Tw is.

The moment you think you get more time (high Tw) to do something, I suppose a psychological bias kicks in with confidence to successfully do the task. As if you are doing it slower and confidently. Perhaps it helps the feedback mechanism, who knows? I’d like to test it out someday! 


Guidelines on how to multitask (summary)

1. Automate each task through deliberate practise and rehearsal. Practice to the point that you are comfortable mindlessly doing the task. (Task 1, Task 2, Task 3, etc.)

2. Use your executive attention to actually manage the tasks and chunks by making sure you are on track at certain important moments – Metaphorical on-switch, task triggers, and difficult moments.

3. Use attentional shifts to lock-in feedback with your task to dynamically make adjustments and error corrections as you anticipate them or spot them.


A Brain training exercise to improve your multitasking skills:

There is a task called the n-back task. It is often used to judge if a person can demonstrate attention shifts while holding information in working memory.

The user is shown a number of items on a screen. Let’s say numbers. They will appear one by one and the user has to respond when the same number appear n trials ago. This is the n-back aspect. You can have 2-back for 2 trials ago. 4-back for 4 trials ago. The goal is to train yourself to hold information in your short term memory while paying attention to each item that appears on the screen.

This n-back is pretty simple. Things get complex when it becomes a Dual n-back task. That is when you have to maintain 2 pay attention to 2 sequences. Let’s say you get numbers and letters appearing one after the other. You have to pay attention to both and respond when a number appeared n trials ago AND when a letter appeared n trials ago.

This gets even more complex when you have one sequence appearing on a screen and the other one is through the speaker. That is 2 sequences – one visual, one auditory. Attentional demands increase. In fact, this is used to identify the so-called supertaskers I talked about at the start of this guide.

Take the n-back exercise/test here. Have fun doing it after this post is over. 🙂 Remember, it takes some practice to get really good at it.


A personal example of multitasking: I’ve started playing the guitar in a rather unusual way. I use both my hands to tap on the fretboard to produce different melodies and work in synchrony but aren’t alike. It’s like running 2 parallel melodies, both are physically complex and require attention to detail. I practiced them individually and then learned to play them slowly while using my attention to make corrections one at a time while both hand’s moved automatically. I then maintained a regular attention shift to ensure that things are in place. Now, it’s easy to do this sort of multitasking, here is a video.

Here is more of me multitasking.


P.S. This is not hard science, these are conjectures. I am trying to be a multitasking guitarist, and this is introspective thought with some science.

P.P.S. I can help chalk out a detailed plan of learning for you to multitask, do leave a comment & subscribe via email!

Img src: https://www.flickr.com/photos/fbobolas/3822222947

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