attention

digital brain

Brain Limits

I’ve heard you can’t really multi-task, despite people who claim they can.

I don’t entirely agree. I can do more than one thing at a time, but only to a point. For example, I can perform simple familiar tasks, like washing dishes, while thinking about something I’m writing or intend to write. And listening to a news program. In fact, I need to have some sort of mental input while doing manual work, even something like sewing, which is not simple or familiar.

But there are limits. I’ve tested them.

First, let me describe the usual scenario in my writing and blogging space. There’s the computer, with a bunch of weather-related tabs open, plus WordPress, plus Goodreads and a few others. Also email, of course. There’s an old-fashioned mini-stereo setup behind and to one side of the computer. It can play CDs and even cassette tapes, although it’s hardly ever called upon to do that. Mostly it’s a radio, and if I’m at the computer, it’s always on, cranking out music, news, or a current affairs program. Sometimes there’s music on the radio and at the same time a podcast on the computer, talking to me through one earbud. And as well as listening, I’m reading blog posts, or even writing one.

multitasking head media colourful
Image from Pixabay

Is this ideal? Probably not, but it seems to work. Is it multi-tasking? No. It’s sequential tasking. The old brain can deal with only one or perhaps two of these inputs at a time. The music seems to seep through the other stuff, but if it fully engages my attention, I disengage from the other tasks so I can listen properly. Otherwise, I’m taking in and focussing on only the words I’m reading, writing, or listening to, for sequential short intervals. I have to admit, I miss a lot of details of the radio programs while paying attention to blog posts or whatever I’m writing. Quite often, my attention is caught by the host thanking the interviewee or announcing the performer, having missed whatever was said, played, or sung. Annoying, but there it is.

When this input-juggling is working well, I can actually get things read or written and switch focus in time to get something out of whatever I’m listening to. It’s not the best way to absorb information, but it’s the only way I’ve come up with to keep up with the blogs I follow and what’s going on in the world, as well as creating blog posts and other writings.

Maybe this is why by the end of the day I don’t trust myself to write comments on people’s blog posts. The brain is worn out!

A final thought: if a long writing session is too challenging, a five-minute one jammed in between other mental tasks is manageable. Several such sessions actually produce visible results. Note: I don’t write first drafts of novels this way; that’s a whole other process!

Ideal combinations:

  • manual work + informative radio program
  • reading blogs + informative radio program or music
  • reading fiction + music
  • writing + music

Ideally, only two inputs at a time, you notice.

On the other hand, I don’t watch anything. At all. Well, maybe the odd video, but only if it’s a short one. No TV, no streaming. I read a lot of books. I do this reading away from the computer and even the radio, mainly during meals and before going to sleep.

Fellow bloggers, how do you avoid brain overload? Do any of you multitask?