I watched my children as they sat at the kitchen table, each attempting to complete their homework. Books were open, pencils sharpened and they were working productively…for about four minutes! Then, my youngest took a break to find a song on YouTube that he wanted to listen to. My oldest had his iPhone by his side and stopped every 90 seconds to check or send a text message.
Eventually they refocused, but soon decided that they needed a snack. Then they answered a question or two, ate some fruit, checked their messages, changed the song, attempted to write another sentence, chatted about soccer practice that evening, ate some fruit, checked their messages, changed the song…You get the picture.
Perhaps, like me, your first instinct is to criticize this generation of children for their lack of attention span and pending addictions to technology. Watching the squirrel-like behaviour of my children had me worried about the direction of our society. This is the future of our world?! Yikes!
However, as I watched them in combined fascination and horror, I realized that I was cooking dinner, answering texts, listening to music and chatting with my children. Our current culture is made up of chronic multi-taskers! Even now, as I write this article, I am having coffee, with my cellphone by my side just in case I receive an email or a text.
I used to brag about my ability to multi-task. I am, after all, a woman, a mother, a teacher. I practically have a Masters Degree in doing several things at once. I take pride in the number of tasks I can accomplish in a day and I criticize my poor husband for only being able to do one thing at a time.
However, when I took a minute to consider my own multi-tasking nature, I realized that I am constantly running through a to-do list in my mind. I always feel rushed and complain that there are not enough hours in my day. I focus more on tasks than I do on people. At the end of the day, I feel productive and accomplished, but am I truly happy and fulfilled? Does any of this sound familiar to you?
I began to wonder what multi-tasking does to our brains. And, as we are setting this fast-paced example for our children, what is multi-tasking doing to their learning and their brain development? Is multi-tasking a valuable or detrimental skill? So, I began to research.
What I found is that our brains can only truly concentrate on one thing at a time. Despite our belief that we are accomplishing two things at once, our brain is simply switching back and forth. Researchers call this “task-switching” and their work generally falls into one of two veins: 1) task-switching is a necessary life skill or 2) task-switching can slow down the learning process. I find value in both opinions.
It is true that our children need to multi-task in order to succeed in life, for it promotes mental flexibility. For example, in an elementary classroom context, children must be able to focus on their work, stop to ask or answer a question, listen to the chatter of their peers, perhaps go to the washroom and then come back to attend to their task. In a high school or college setting, students need to listen to a lecture and simultaneously take notes.
As an adult, we may be working at our desk and become interrupted by a phone call or a meeting. We often multi-task throughout the course of our day. We listen to music while doing chores, we chat with passengers while driving. We navigate small interruptions as we attempt to accomplish any given task. Children must learn to regulate their attention and prioritize their to-do lists.
However, some research argues that task-switching is relatively harmless as long as both tasks are done with relative ease. As soon as one task becomes effortful, our learning may suffer. Researchers have coined the term, “switch cost.” When our brains bounce back and forth between various activities, it may result in increased errors and longer reaction times (the time it takes our brain to refocus on the learning task at hand).
In terms of learning, multi-tasking can be somewhat disruptive, for we are digesting information in snippets, instead of in depth. Studies show that this style of learning actually lowers the retention of new information and leads to a lower level of engagement in any given activity. For example, reading comprehension is proven to be lower when we read with the TV on in the background. Though we may not be watching the show, our brains still recognize and want to decifer the noise.
However, when we take time to learn something slowly and deliberately, with complete focus, the information will be processed and understood to a greater degree.
So, what does this mean for me and my family? For one, I needed to set a better example by choosing to slow down and have a more manageable to-do list each day. This was a game changer for me. Not only am I modelling good behaviour for my family by focusing on only one or two things at a time, the pressure to check multiple tasks off my list has been alleviated. My stress level is lower and I am more present for my kids.
I also chose to share some of my concerns with my family and filled them in on the research. Together, we decided to implement some phone-free times, starting with after school homework. In having an open and honest discussion and allowing my children to understand why I held certain beliefs, I was pleasantly surprised by their level of buy in. Because they understood the logic of my concerns, they not only agreed, but even furthered the conversation.
As a family, we also agreed to put our phones away during family time, when the primary focus should be on connecting and enjoying each other. While we watch our favourite TV show, phones are in the kitchen. When we are in the car, phones are put away so that we can focus on conversation and scenery. These small changes serve to remind us what our priorities are.
Multi-tasking is not entirely detrimental. In today’s hectic world, it is a necessary and useful skill. However, we need to be mindful not to let it become all-consuming and remember that there are times when we must allow our brains to focus. Learning and meaningful relationships should be the priority and deserve our full attention.