There is a prevailing notion that women are “just better” at multitasking, partially because some studies report just that. But that shallow analysis is more show than substance, and it doesn’t explain the Whys and Hows that are key to making positive changes. To do multitasking well, there are two things you need to understand: context switching and planning.
Context switching is the change in focus jumping from one problem to the next, and it is expensive. Some studies show an effective IQ decline when people take the test while multitasking, and this makes some sense: in order to switch contexts, your brain needs to flush out all of the old-task stuff and reload all of the new-task stuff. Anything that did not take up much mental space wouldn’t occupy you for long, so the tasks we end up doing tend to involve at least some flush & reload. Multitasking frequently involves rapid switches, back and forth, between one or more tasks; you end up paying the overhead cost on each switch, multiple times per task. If you can stick to only one task, you don’t switch contexts and pay no costs, so you are more efficient. We have written before about getting things out of your brain so they aren’t obstructive, and not needing to switch contexts is a similar removal of barriers.
But according to a few studies, some people are better at multitasking. Do they switch contexts more quickly? Do their brains flush and load new information faster or more efficiently? If you ask the experts, the answer is a strong “No”. Instead, better multitaskers (frequently women) put more effort into the up-front planning of the work.
“They spent more time thinking at the beginning, whereas men had a slight impulsiveness, they jumped in too quickly.” – Professor Keith Laws.
This should be very encouraging! Instead of some inescapable biological fate, good multitasking boils down to something anyone can do: a bit of up-front planning. Rather than immediately sprinting toward the goal, a little planning might save you substantial effort and get you to the goal faster. In the sprinting metaphor, checking the bus schedule and waiting at the stop for a few minutes might get you across town much, much faster. In multitasking, planning out how to minimize context switching minimizes the costs you pay. Men tend to be slower multitaskers; the time spent planning pays dividends by saving even more time later.
Modern life is emphasizing multitasking more and more. Instead of merely having to mind a phone, we now have phone, email, text, instant message, Snapchat, and whatever else all commanding our attention. As multitasking becomes more common, the price of being bad at it gets higher and higher. A little planning goes a long way in freeing up your time while reducing stress.
(We’re making progress on our tool to simplify this planning and execution process for exactly this reason; check back soon!)