# Quick brain teaser to prove the limits of multitasking

How often do you dis­cuss office gos­sip via chat while par­tic­i­pat­ing in a Zoom meet­ing? Or read a great arti­cle while talk­ing on the phone with a client? Or, wait, think about work prob­lems while help­ing your child with homework?

Yup, it is not easy to stay focused and be tru­ly productive.

All the sit­u­a­tions described above involve doing more than one thing at a time … and often mul­ti-task­ing com­pro­mis­es performance.

Atten­tion is a scarce resource. Think about your atten­tion­al focus as the beam of a light. If the light is on an object it can­not be on oth­er objects at the same time with the same inten­si­ty. Only dim light will be avail­able to light up the objects in the periph­ery. The same hap­pens in your atten­tion­al sys­tem. Divid­ing atten­tion results in less atten­tion­al pow­er devot­ed to each of the dif­fer­ent tasks. The more tasks, the less atten­tion can be devot­ed to each — plus the “tran­si­tion cost” from one to anoth­er and then back. The result is often errors and waste of time. Although we typ­i­cal­ly have the feel­ing that mul­ti­task­ing saves us time, it is often not the case.

To prove this point, please try this brain teas­er. The let­ters in three words (SUN, BUS, NONE) have been com­bined to make the grid of let­ters below.

1. How many times does each of these words appear — hor­i­zon­tal­ly, ver­ti­cal­ly or diag­o­nal­ly? SUN, BUS, NONE
2. Can you com­pare your per­for­mance while search­ing for just one word vs. two of them at the same time? Or even the three of them?

How many times is the word SUN shown?
How many times is the word BUS shown?
How many times is the word NONE shown?

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Sun: 12 times
Bus: 8 times
None: 4 times

Search­ing for more than one word at a time prob­a­bly does­n’t work too well … does it?

That proves the lim­its of multitasking.

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– Pas­cale Mich­e­lon, PhD, is a sci­en­tist, edu­ca­tor, and con­tribut­ing author to The Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness: How to Opti­mize Brain Health and Per­for­mance at Any Age.

For more fun cog­ni­tive stim­u­la­tion, try these 25 Brain Teasers for Teens and Adults and explore What are Cog­ni­tive Abil­i­ties and Skills, and How to Boost Them?

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.