In his new book, 'BrainChains', Dr. Theo Compernolle unmasks the myth of multitasking. Can we as humans do more than one thing at the same time or can we not?
Dr. Compernolle, welcome to our studio.
Can we human beings multitask?
Yes, we can. Most of our brain is multitasking, but there is one part of our brain that cannot multitask and that's our thinking brain. This most human part of our brain, or thinking brain, cannot multitask. Period.
But what does that mean in practice? What can we do in multitasking and what can't we do?
Well, what's very inefficient and very stressful and the cause of a lot of problems and accidents is changing all the time from one task and work what is important... Text, and then I do a few emails. Back to the text, I do a phone call. So you're switching all the time from one thing to the other.
But you're not only switching but also your brain is switching, I understand?
Your brain, yeah. And the switch is the problem. So every time you switch in your brain, you lose energy, you lose creativity, you lose productivity. Because people don't realize what they're doing. They don't know the brain. And I think that if they really would know their brain better -and that's what I try to explain in the book 'BrainChains'- then hopefully you will take the right measures. What you are doing: you're working on this very important report. You see the little pop-up screen. You think: "oh, that's just a little email from my HR or whatever. I can do that". But it's not that easy for your brain. Because your brain has all this complex information in its working memory. When you want to start with the email, it has to park this in the temporary memory. Then clean your working memory, go to your long-term memory, get the information, answer the email... And then when you start with one email, we all know; you have a second and a third and you go on.
There are always a lot of them.
Yeah, and so what you do is: get the information, answer the email; temporary memory. Get the information, don't forget to clean the working memory. But temporary memory is limited. So it's first in, first out. So those stupid little emails are pushing the information to the exit. And so, 10-12 minutes later when you try to get the information, you lost it already. A lot of this information. Especially when you've been really busy with your emails, because then your archiving brain didn't really get the chance to archive the information that's in temporary memory and put it in long-term memory. And you lose it.
But is that the fault of modern technology, then?
No, the technology is fantastic. The combination of the human brain and technology is fantastic. Imagine what happened recently; that after travelling 6 years, 10 billion kilometres, miles, landing the little Philae-lander from Rosetta on exactly the right spot on a little piece of rock that's moving at 150.000 miles an hour. There is no brain that can do that. There's no computer that can do this. But the combination of the human brain and the computer is fantastic. But our little computer in our pocket, very powerful computer; the smartphone. It's so recent; 5 years for everybody, 7-8 years for managers. It is so recent that we didn't learn how to work with it, because don't know how the brain functions. And so we use it in a way that's totally undermining especially our thinking brain.
But how should you use them, then?
Batch processing. The solution is batch processing. You have time for thinking work, undisturbed. You have time for emails. You have time for little tasks and you have time at home.
So put it off?
Yes and disconnect. Disconnect. So there are only three... The summary of my book BrainChains is three commandments. The first one is: ruthlessly, radically reduce all switches. The second rule is: disconnect to reflect. And the third one is: disconnect to have a break, so that your archiving brain, that's doing its work when we have a break can store all the information in your beautiful archives, and to give your thinking brain, that's consuming a lot of energy, to give it a chance to recuperate and be ready for the next task.
So if you're waiting a few minutes before a meeting, it's better to do nothing than quickly look at your emails?
Absolutely, it is so ignorant. Until a few years ago I said: "it's so stupid". But then I realized: no, it's not stupid. If you don't know this, it's ignorant. But once you know it and you keep doing it, then it's stupid. So if you don't want to be uncomfortable with the way you are totally dysfunctionally functioning today; don't read my book because after reading my book it's worse. Because then you know. And if you keep working in the old inefficient way, then that's stupid.
But there are things that we can do in multitasking. For example driving with the car and listening to the radio.
Yeah, and being in a conference call and doing your emails. The answer is no: our thinking brain cannot multitask. While you're doing the email, you don't hear what's being said. You don't... There are hundreds of experiments about it. You don't. Yeah, so you miss things about this meeting. But it's interesting. One of the things that's happening is that our brain does not like nothing, gaps, and so you guess what has been said. If you know the people of the meeting and the subject very well, you might guess right. Is that why everybody comes out of the meeting and says: "oh, I did understand this", and the other one... Of course, because you cannot do two things at the same time, so the people who are doing emails in a meeting; they don't hear things that clearly have been said and they hear things that have not been said.
But why is it then... The example of the car and the radio; why does that work?
It would be impossible to drive a car with our thinking brain, because the thinking brain can only think about one thing at a time. But with a lot of training the routine of driving goes to our reflex brain. A very primitive brain that we have in common with all animals. And our reflex brain can handle information from 8-9 channels at the same time and make extremely fast decisions. But only here and now. For our reflex brain only what I can sense with all my senses exists. So if you're driving and you have a lot of experience... You're driving and there is a little red ball going over the street. For your reflex brain: "pfff, here and now, red ball, rubber ball. I don't have to... I can just drive". But your thinking brain has to be on standby, to think in a flash: "hey wait a minute. A little red ball means there’s a kid". So the reflex brain is the only part of our brain that can't think about the future. So then you slow down and you brake even if there is no kid in sight. But it's very prudent to do that. For our reflex brain, which is managing all the routine of driving; it only sees what it sees, but not what could happen. But then radio might be still okay but calling in the car...? It's horrible.
Even hands free?
You have up to 8 times more risk of having an accident. 8 times! After you heard this, if you use your phone in the car, then that's stupid. A little text message while driving; 20 times more risk of an accident. And hands free doesn't make any difference, because the problem is not as much the hands as it is our brain, that can only handle one thing at the same time.
And is it because people feel more stressed, getting burn-outs and things like that, that there is a need?...
It's clearly one of the reasons why younger and younger people get burnt out. It's doing all those things together. Mixing work and family. They're working at home and they are with family business. 70%-76% of the people in Belgium do private things at home and the problem is not where you work, but it's how you work. So whether you do it at home, or at home, the solution is batch processing. Because the switching... If you switch from work to private, the more the context is different, the more you lose. So switching within a task you're doing or a text you're writing... But it's all about the subject. The switching is kind of okay, but you're switching all of the time. But then when in between you switch from something like work to a home situation, that costs a lot. If in a meeting you switch from discussing human things about HR and then you switch to discussing money, then the switch is much bigger. People who want to read your book; where can they find it? The English one is on Amazon.com.
Dr. Compernolle; thank you very much for coming over.
It was a pleasure, thank you.
And you at home; thank you for watching our show. I hope to see you next week.