In today’s rush-rush-rush world, we are constantly trying to take on more work—usually all at the same time. It may seem exhausting, but I’m a believer that the more you do, the more you can do. Up to a point, of course, but I find that achieving a number of small goals during the day is encouraging enough to have an energising effect.
Trying to juggle too many things, however, just causes stress. I have a theory that we only have a certain tolerance and ability to absorb stress. And once that elastic has been stretched way past breaking point, things never quite go back to the way they were. Or, if they do, it takes far longer than we may think to recover.
But I often find it helpful to do two things at the same time—particularly if they’re totally different in nature. We have a creative side of the brain and a practical side. Distract the practical side with something physical and it often leaves the creative side free to problem-solve and, in my case, come up with answers to sticky plot-points that have been defeating me for days.
Take this week, for example. I’m in the midst of fitting a new kitchen for my parents, which is a mostly physical activity. I’ve also managed to complete an outline for a novella that I’ve been pondering over for weeks, and I’m also waking up earlier, despite being pretty dog tired at the end of each day.
I notice mood most in my sleep patterns. When I’m busy I naturally wake earlier and seem to need less sleep. If I’m not careful it’s very easy to slip into sloth mode.
Multitasking should only be taken so far, though. I recently came across a study reported on ScienceMag back in 2010, entitled, Multitasking Splits The Brain:
‘When the brain tries to do two things at once, it divides and conquers, dedicating one-half of our gray matter to each task, new research shows. But forget about adding another mentally taxing task: The work also reveals that the brain can't effectively handle more than two complex, related activities at once.
‘When it comes to task management, the prefrontal cortex is key. The anterior part of this brain region forms the goal or intention—for example, "I want that cookie"—and the posterior prefrontal cortex talks to the rest of the brain so that your hand reaches toward the cookie jar and your mind knows whether you have the cookie. So what happens when another goal enters the mix?
‘To find out, neuroscientists Etienne Koechlin and Sylvain Charron of the French biomedical research agency INSERM in Paris turned to functional magnetic resonance imaging, which measures changes in brain activity. They monitored 16 women and 16 men, aged 19 to 32, as they performed a complicated letter-matching task … The volunteers received a small amount of money if they performed well.
‘As the team expected, working on a single letter-matching task at a time activated both sides of the volunteers’ brains, setting off the anterior-to-posterior chain of command to get the job done. But as soon as the volunteers took on the second task, their brains split the labor: activity in the left side of the prefrontal cortex corresponded to one task while the right side took over the other task. Each side of the brain worked independently, pursuing its own goal and monetary reward …
‘Koechlin says the results suggest that the brain can’t efficiently juggle more than two tasks because it has only two hemispheres available for task management. Indeed, when the team asked another 16 volunteers to match letters of the same color while completing the same two letter-matching tasks the first group tackled, the triple-task jugglers consistently forgot one of their tasks. They also made three times as many errors as they did while dual-tasking.
‘“In terms of everyday behavior, you can cook and talk on the phone at the same time,” Koechlin explains. “The problem arises when you pursue three goals at the same time. Your prefrontal cortex will always discard one.”’
So, as long as I stick to only doing two things at once, I’ll be fine. Now, where’s my notepad and my big hammer?
This week’s Word of The Week is berserk, usually used in the context of ‘to go berserk’. It comes from ancient Norse warriors who were noted to fight with great ferocity that was almost uncontrolled. The word itself comes from the Old Norse berserkr and it’s thought that originates from their style of dress, combining bjorn (bear) or maybe berr ‘bare’ (without armour) and serkr (coat).
Also this week, I have news of two chances to multitask in your reading material. They say the way to read more books, is to surround yourself with them and dip in and out. If that’s the case you’ll love these two e-boxed sets just out. The first is THRILLING THIRTEEN, which offers ten mystery thrillers, two novellas and a short story from some of today’s top thriller writers—oh, erm, and me. I've chosen to include ABSENCE OF LIGHT: a Charlie Fox novella, which finds Charlie working as security advisor for a Disaster Recovery Team after a major earthquake. Even if you've already read this book, there's plenty more for you to enjoy.
The other e-boxed set is ADRENALINE RUSH, containing seven thrillers by even more top mystery thriller writers, including a different book from me. In this case, my recent standalone THE BLOOD WHISPERER, featuring former CSI turned crime-scene cleaner, Kelly Jacks, who went to prison for a crime she can't remember.
Both collections are available for the eye-wateringly reasonable price of $1.30 or just £0.77.
As the saying has it, fill yer boots!