Here's How To Become Better at Multitasking (and still be efficient)

Ask a Musician



My fingers fly across the keys effortlessly. It's as if my hands already know what comes next and are trying to outdo each other. The stress from my day flows into the music; relieving the tension in my shoulders.


Piano has been a part of my life ever since I was 5 years old. It was love at first sight (or rather sound) for me. Even when I was plunking out Old McDonald Had a Farm, I was awed at the way striking different keys at different times created a melody. I got into the habit of playing pieces with my eyes closed, allowing my fingers to take control and leaning into the music, trusting my hands to find the next note. 


I’ve always been fascinated with multitasking. Many of my friends have commented in awe on my ability to do multiple things at once. But I’ve read articles on multitasking that changed my respect for it. Apparently, by multitasking, I wasn’t being as efficient or effective as I would be if I was focusing all of my brainpower on one task. According to new studies, I was only going to remember less info and make more mistakes.


 The prefrontal cortex kicks into gear anytime you need to pay attention. This part of your brain helps you stay focused on a single task by coordinating messages with both sides of your brain. In psychology, multitasking is better known as “task switching”, describing the ability to quickly switch your attention between two separate tasks. So, when we’re multitasking, we’re not actually doing 2 or 3 things at once, our brain is just very rapidly changing its focus.

 

When you add more than one task your brain begins switching between tasks in rapid succession. That’s when we begin to forget facts and make three times more mistakes than normal. Why? Because we’re ignoring one of the tasks at milliseconds for a time, and our brain has to remember the different rules while rapidly switching between them for each task. 


Say if you’re trying to answer emails while talking on the phone, your brain has to swap between the rules it needs to follow for holding a verbal conversation, and the grammar and spelling rules needed for a coherent email. According to research done by the American Psychological Association multitasking is less efficient because it takes extra time for your brain to shift mental gears every time you swap tasks. Since I’m a button clicker and super impatient, I like to think of it like switching back and forth from multiple different tabs in safari. My computer will often have a hard time switching that fast, so I lose seconds of time waiting for my tabs to load.


But according to a study done by the Journal of cognitive science musicians' brains function differently.

“Musicians’ extensive training requires maintenance and manipulation of complex stimuli in memory, such as notes, melody, pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and the emotional tone of a musical piece,” write the authors of the study. They report that this meticulous training “may help them to develop superior control to respond efficiently to stimuli in an environment where both switching and non-switching components exist.”

Musicians are required to use both sides of their brains at once. Most musicians must be able to use both hands independently to play their instruments which requires an elevated use of both brain hemispheres than normal.

“Musicians may be particularly good at efficiently accessing and integrating competing information from both hemispheres. Instrumental musicians often integrate different melodic lines with both hands into a single musical piece, and they have to be very good at simultaneously reading the musical symbols, which are like left-hemisphere-based language, and integrating the written music with their own interpretation, which has been linked to the right hemisphere.”

Research was done comparing bilinguals ability to multitask with musicians’. One would think being able to switch between two or more languages efficiently would mean your multitasking levels were increased, but researchers found musicians outperformed bilinguals during multitasking tests, suggesting they have a stronger ability to shift flexibly between mental sets. 

“Musicians’ extensive training requires maintenance and manipulation of complex stimuli in memory, such as notes, melody, pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and the emotional tone of a musical piece this may help them to develop superior control to respond efficiently to stimuli in an environment where both switching and non-switching components exist.”

The results of this study is obvious. 



If you need two things done at once, call a musician.

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