Interrupt the Multitasking Habit


Debunking the myth of productive multitasking is challenging. Don't people do two or more things at once every day? We joke about being able to walk and chew gum simultaneously, and listening to music makes mundane tasks, like chores, more pleasant to perform. The key to doing these things simultaneously is that we can do one or both of them almost automatically without experiencing cognitive challenge. Washing the dishes does not require me to plan, problem solve, or analyze, so I can easily listen to a podcast or hold a conversation while cleaning up from dinner. When a task requires concentration, multitasking becomes challenging. For example, driving in good conditions is relatively easy, so listening to the radio does not feel distracting or difficult. However, many of us will turn the volume down or off when we are searching for an unfamiliar address.

Multitasking is not a skill that we can develop through practice, nor is it a special ability of the highly intelligent. Doing more than one thing at a time is simply dividing one's attention inefficiently. David Rock explains what research tells us about why true multitasking is an impossibility in his book Your Brain at Work. A short four-paragraph excerpt is available here. Have a read and share it with the students and worker bees in your life.

It is important that we parents, teachers, and tutors help children to learn about multitasking's effects on productivity. Technology is particularly distracting for young people, and steady streams of mobile device notifications can significantly slow the pace of school work. In my classroom I used to run multitasking experiments to demonstrate the difficulty of splitting one's attention. In one such experiment, children would do arithmetic worksheets for one minute and tally the number of problems they solved accurately. I would then hand out a new worksheet with similarly challenging problems. Students completed the second worksheet while loud music played on the classroom speakers. Inevitably, the average number of accurate answers they could produce in a minute dropped, and students felt that the task was more difficult. Another way I helped students to understand multitasking's effects was to have them combine a physical task with a cognitive challenge. The students would start by tossing a ball into the air and catching it with one hand as fast as they could. I would then have them recite the alphabet while continuing to toss and catch the ball. Most students could do this without much difficultly because both catching a ball and saying the alphabet are things they can do without concentration. As a last step, I would add a cognitive challenge by asking students to continue tossing the ball at the same speed while solving mental math problems. It was always fascinating to watch the ball tossing slow or stop. If you have a disbelieving child at home, try replicating these exercises or running your own multitasking experiments. We adults can also teach by example. Modeling behavior is powerful. Every mid-conversation social media update or work-in-front-of-the-television session serves to reinforce multitasking for the children who observe us.

Photo is courtesy of Flickr user Paul Hamilton and is used under a Creative Commons license.

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