Multitasking is bad for you—unless you do it this way

We all know the studies that show that multitasking is bad for us, resulting in lower performance and decreased attention. But the demands on us just don’t stop, so what if there’s a better way?

Now it looks like there is.

A study from researchers at Tel Aviv University made up of five experiments shed light on an effective way to multitask.

It boils down to a concept called “memory reactivation.”

The key: do one task thoroughly until you have physically memorized it, and then start a new task within a certain period of time and learn that thoroughly. The key is that when you get used to the physical actions of a task, it’s easier and less taxing to repeat it.

In other words, here’s the surprising part of the finding: you can multitask better if you commit each task to muscle memory, turning it almost automatic.

In contrast, if we do two different tasks successively, trying to learn each one at the same time, then we jam our ability to thoroughly learn each task. That can create interference in our minds, which reduces the quality of the work we’re doing.

‘Competing for the same brain resources’

Dr. Nitzan Censor of TAU’s School of Psychological Sciences and Sagol School of Neuroscience commented on the research in a statement in a write-up of the study.

“When we learn a new task, we have great difficulty performing it and learning something else at the same time. For example, performing a motor task A (such as performing a task with one hand) can reduce performance in a second task B (such as performing a task with the other hand) conducted in close conjunction to it. This is due to interference between the two tasks, which compete for the same brain resources…Our research demonstrates that the brief reactivation of a single learned memory, in appropriate conditions, enables the long-term prevention of, or immunity to, future interference in the performance of another task performed in close conjunction,” Censor said.

What the researchers found

The research was done on a smaller scale— 81 people, ages 18-40, which is much smaller than studies than can claim a significant result.

In the study, participants first practiced typing out a set of five numbers using their right hand as quickly and correctly as they could — this was the “original memory.”

Participants then did this again on another day (drawing on first practice they learned), then also did it with the left hand (the “novel memory”) during a specific period of time.

The researchers said that waiting to learn the second task separately and fully allowed people to learn both tasks better. In their words, it decreased “future interference between the two memories.”

It also had a lasting effect.

A month after “memory reactivation,” the results held up, and more research showed that multitasking didn’t necessarily depend on practice, but instead just enough time to remember how to do the original task.

Try this for yourself the next time you have to multitask: tackle each assignment separately at first, to master all of its elements. Then, only later, combine them. If the research is correct, your multitasking should become a far less frantic and more rewarding activity.