I’ve got two screens at work and at home. More often than not, I’ve got something up on the second screen that is only tangentially connected to the work that I’m doing. That second screen might have Facebook or my Gmail account open or that really interesting news article that I’m reading in sections. I’ve also usually got my headphones on with some lovely classical music playing in the background.
“I’m multitasking,” I keep telling myself. “It’s efficient.”
According to a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science, it might not be so useful for me when I’m trying to retain and reuse information. Their research found that when attention was divided between multiple tasks (think answering e-mails and checking Facebook) that the ability to recall information declined. Interestingly, one of the conditions included listening to music and this did not have a negative impact on recalling information.
Multitasking: The Myth and the Legend
So what does this mean?
First of all, we need to realize that multitasking is a bit of myth. Our brains are really hardwired to pay attention to one thing at a time. This harkens back to our days of swinging through the trees where paying attention to one thing at a time helped us survive. What is really happening when we multitask is that we are switching from one area of focus to another, over and over again. This rapid switching takes effort and starts to use of the resources that the brain has available to work with (i.e. it burns through its fuel).
We think we are being more efficient, but we are actually taking longer because we use time and effort to make the switch between tasks. The opposite of this state is described as flow, or being in the zone, by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. Being in a state of flow takes advantage of our ability to hyperfocus and put other things out of our minds. People in a state of flow are in an “optimal experience” according to Csíkszentmihályi.
Multitasking, therefore, is at the opposite end of the spectrum with its high cognitive energy costs.
How Do I Get My Kids to Stop Multitasking?
The popular image of a child today doing their homework involves at least one type of social media, music, and at least one other distraction thrown in. Because multitasking is a learned behavior, it can be tough to get kids to stop. Here are few strategies to try:
Help your child understand and learn about the impact of multitasking. Share with them that switching between studying and texting has their brain switching between tasks. With each change, your brain gets more tired, just as if you were constantly switching between walking to the left and then walking forward. You can even try a few of the activities listed here to help them better understand.
While we as adults may understand the natural consequences of multitasking making homework take longer, our kids may not. Remind them of what the free time could be used for (mix this into your conversations – don’t nag them!). Mention that they will retain more information and that studying will get easier instead of harder. As they try out single-tasking, ask questions about how it feels and the results that they are getting to see if it is having an impact.
If it helps, have them track their multitasking and their single-tasking to see what kind of impact it has on their learning. They should list the things that they do when multitasking (e.g. texting, social media, TV) and pick a subject that has a consistent amount of homework each night. Then, alternate between multitasking and single-tasking over a series of nights. They should also keep track of the quality of the work produced and any other feedback on outcomes. Taking a look at the data may make this more real for some kids.
As parents, it is often best for us to get out of the way as our kids are developing their study skills. At the same time, we need to be prepared to help them problem solve. Keep these solutions in your back pocket to provide guidance:
- Turn off the cell phone (or put it in another room)
- Create a homework space that is free of distractions
- Schedule breaks
- Move away from the TV
- Keep snacks and water nearby
- Put on noise-canceling headphones (with or without music) to reduce outside noise)
- Use a browser extension to block distracting websites
Working together, you can help your child develop stronger student skills. And maybe, we can also learn a valuable lesson here about our own multitasking, too.