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Listening to educational podcasts while you walk on the street may sound like a good idea, but how much is it really helping you? Multitasking promises to give us something for free – just do X while you already do Y, and you’ll get more/better results! But how much does it really help?
Recently I cut out nearly all multitasking from my life. I still listen to music while working simply because I enjoy it, but even there I have chosen music which does not have any words (purely instrumental, such as classical or techno music) to avoid focusing on the lyrics. The fact is, humans suck at multitasking. Scientists have definitively shown this.
It even goes further – humans actually learn fundamentally differently and worse when multitasking (NPR). When trying to accomplish something by multitasking, you are actually being doubly unproductive. Even worse, your brain wastes lots of time in the act of switching between tasks. With the educational podcast example above – once you have listened to the podcast while doing something else (work out, etc.) you believe you have already studied the lesson, so you do not return to it. However according to research, your brain is actually forming the memories differently (with a different part of the brain). Not only are you learning less, you’re not even learning with the right part of the brain!
The truth is, the best results come with the strongest focus. In the popular P90x workout/training videos a great emphasis is placed on the mental aspect of pushing yourself right to the edge of what you can do. The most muscular growth is not a result of the first 8 (easy) movements – it comes from the last 2 (difficult) movements. The 80/20 law applies all over to just about everything we can do/learn/engage in. It is pushing yourself to the edge that takes you further, not the act of simply completing the exercise. Sports coaches call distracted performance (aka multitasking) simply “going through the motions.” The implication is that nothing is actually accomplished, even though the task is superficially completed.
So, what to do instead?
Try improving your focus by restricting your senses when studying, for example. When you’re going to class or to work, enjoy the walk or read an enjoyable book – don’t try to “get something for free” by multitasking. The best thing you can do with this time is accept that it is time you need to spend and try to find some way to take pleasure out of it. Then, when it comes time to get real tasks accomplished, you will be fresh and ready for them.