How many times a day do you catch yourself multitasking? Talking on the phone while watching TV and cooking is not uncommon for many women over 60. But is it efficient?

Allegedly, Leonardo da Vinci had been able to write while drawing. Some documents of his backwards writing (right to left) remain to this day, although, based on how difficult they are to read, I suspect that even if he could write with one hand and draw with the other simultaneously, neither was very good.

This is an example of multitasking that does not work. But to hear people say that we are generally incapable of multitasking is a very limited view of our brain’s capacity.

You Can Multitask Efficiently When You Mix the Right Activities

Not only can we multitask, but some tasks are performed better when we do multitask. Try riding a bicycle and only peddle but not steer or only steer but not peddle. Clearly, riding a bicycle works better when we do both at the same time.

Your brain is processing more than one thing at a time every minute of the day.

So, when does multitasking work?

When You Mix the Tasks

An interesting thing about the brain is that it has areas of specialization. Our brain isn’t just one big grey mass but is divided into distinct parts that specialize in different functions. By engaging in tasks that employ different areas of the brain, we can easily do those tasks simultaneously.

For instance, while doing your daily exercise program, you can count your reps. Already you are multitasking. Then you could also plan what you are making for supper or think about who you are going to invite to your dinner party. Further multitasking.

However, you would not be able to count how many people are on your invitation list because you are already counting your reps, and you would surely get those numbers mixed up.

Try this: Next time you are working on a hobby, put on some music. Or go for a walk and listen to a podcast.

When One Task Is Well Practiced

We all have things that we have done so many times that we could practically do them in our sleep. Perhaps you make a cookie recipe that is your family favourite or you style your hair a particular way.

Whatever it is, you sort of go on auto pilot while performing that task, providing free time for your brain to work on something else. My mother would knit and carry on a conversation or watch TV at the same time.

Have you watched a child learning to tie up shoes? You will see complete focus and concentration on that task. Nothing else enters her mind. Once that task becomes routine, she can tie shoes and chatter away through it.

Try this: While you are folding your laundry, make that phone call that you have been putting off.

When One Task Includes Physical Movement

This one is really the most exciting for us 60-somethings. When we combine movement and thinking we can often see an increase in efficiency!

When we are deep into a project, all of our focus is on that endeavour, and other departments in our brain take a break, so to speak. However, when we start moving our body, we engage those other areas of our brain, and that somehow improves the brain’s activity around the primary focus.

Standing desks or even treadmill desks have started becoming popular in some offices. Originally developed for people wanting to increase their physical health, users now find that there are cognitive benefits as well. Mature women can definitely benefit from it as one more way to prevent dementia.

Try this: While you are doing housework, you could be mulling over how you could handle a sticky family situation.

When One Task Involves Creativity

Another way that movement improves the efficiency of multitasking is in the area of creativity. One of my favourite definitions of creativity is “bringing together two previously unrelated ideas.”

A famous example is the man that got cockleburs stuck on his clothes and thought of making fasteners using the same concept. Now we all know that as Velcro.

Two unrelated ideas will never collide in our brain if we focus on or think about only one thing at a time, all of the time. For example, you might not be sure how you want to redecorate a particular room.

After looking at what feels like thousands of pictures and hundreds of samples, one day you might find yourself strolling through an art gallery, driving into a parkade or visiting a friend in the hospital and an idea comes to you. Your creative brain has been at work all this time.

Here is a 4-step process for multitasking that involves creativity:

  • Think of a problem you want to solve.
  • Give it some thought, maybe brainstorm on it, consider possible solutions.
  • Then put it into the back of your mind, but not out of your mind.
  • You’ll be surprised how often, out of the blue, when you least expect it, an idea will come to you.

Conclusion

We live in a time when so many of us seem to be in a hurry. Hustle and bustle define our era. We attempt to keep up with the flow of information and demands on our time.

Multitasking isn’t always the answer. Done incorrectly it can leave us disconnected and frustrated. There are times that multitasking does not work, and there are times you will want to give something your full attention.

A simple tip for deciding if multitasking is appropriate is to consider if one of the tasks involves physical movement. If so, this might be a good opportunity for multitasking.

Don’t sell your brain short on multitasking. There are many times when we can use multitasking to our advantage. When combining the right tasks, not only can we be as efficient, but, in some cases, even more so.

Take this 20 question self-assessment quiz to see if your lifestyle supports brain-healthy habits.

Have you found tasks that you can do well together? When was a time when your efficiency improved by doing two tasks at once? Please share your multitasking experience in the comments below.

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