Multitasking's Fall From Grace

by Lisa Miller & Tatiana Guerreiro Ramos

There’s been a lot of talk (and research) of late about the validity of multitasking. Many people - teenagers and adults alike - believe themselves to be skilled multitaskers. Be honest--are you someone who thinks they can do several things simultaneously with speed and accuracy? Do you tell yourself you’re actually more productive when your mind is engaged in multiple ways?

If you stop reading this post for a moment (yes, you would need to actually stop reading this) and do a quick Google search of “multitasking,” you will be regaled with such titles as: The Myth of Multitasking (How Doing it All Gets Nothing Done); How Multitasking Affects Productivity and Brain Health (spoiler alert: it’s not a happy outcome); and 12 Surprising Reasons Multitasking Doesn’t Work. You get the picture. This once-prized “skill” used to feature proudly in cover letters and on resumes.

So why has multitasking fallen from grace?

We now know (#neuroscience) that there is actually no such thing as multitasking, cognitively speaking. Our brains are actually switching from one task to another very quickly, in micro increments of time. Neuroscientists call it “divided attention” and it loosely means paying attention to more than one thing at a time with varying intensity. Here’s what the internet says about divided attention.

We live in a world replete with distractions, pings, buzzing, poking, nudging, and more, so it’s no wonder we regularly divide our attention. We skillfully model for our children what it looks like to talk on the phone while preparing dinner; read an article while responding to email; and, in errant moments, drive while texting. In turn, our children watch YouTube, text, play video games, and update social media, all while doing homework. Oh mighty, multitasking tree, meet your attentionally-divided apples. Ugh!

And we have the audacity to be annoyed.

Don’t click away! There’s hope!

Not surprisingly, all cognitive tasks are NOT equal. In other words, they require different levels of  mental effort and focus. For example, you probably have no problem singing along to a song while driving; having a conversation while walking; or listening to music while grocery shopping. That’s because some of these tasks are rote and you don’t need to attend to them with the same level of concentration and focus you might need when learning a new skill. Have you ever been driving somewhere familiar and arrived at your destination without remembering the details of how you got there? It can be a little jarring, yes, but this happens when your cognitive function is on auto-pilot. You’ve done it so many times, you don’t need maximum concentration to perform the task.

However, when you’re trying to wrangle polynomials, memorize which verbs are conjugated with etre and which with avoir, or develop a thesis statement illustrating the elusiveness of the American Dream in The Great Gatsby, you will likely need to focus and dig deep into your reserves of mental energy and effort.

Once you understand that different tasks require varying levels of cognitive effort, you can help your children recognize this simple truth. And then you can start to group tasks into categories based on cognitive effort. For example: coloring your anatomy diagrams (low cognitive effort) while listening to music is a go! Recalling the definitions of your anatomy terms sans notes in preparation for your test (high cognitive effort) while texting--not so much. In other words, what’s going on in the background is not insignificant.

Because they’ll be irked and won’t believe you, show them instead of  telling them. Play this fun game developed by Dave Crenshaw to illustrate the impact of divided attention. They (and you) will discover that when you divide your attention, even on the simple task of copying, you are slower, less accurate, and more frustrated.  

Show them this video from The Atlantic on the freshly-coined term “single-tasking” and join the #tablessthursday revolution. If you’re lucky, your kids will think it’s cool. More likely, they’ll still be annoyed .

That said, with science and popular culture on your side, you will hopefully feel more comfortable establishing some ground rules for homework time. Helping your students establish a productive work environment and develop single-tasking habits will set them up for success in school and in life.

A final thought: Give the gift of undivided attention to yourself and your children. Put down your devices, make eye contact, and engage. The results are nothing less than magical.