Multi-Tasking: from beginning to end
Distracted by Everything
Remember the good old days when you rushed home to see if the light was blinking on your answering machine? Yes! Someone was thinking of you. Now, we incessantly check our cell phone no matter what we are doing, even if it hasn't chirped or buzzed - just on the off chance we've missed a message. Hey! Can an hour really have gone by without someone thinking of us?
How many times a day can the human brain be interrupted? During which tasks is it imperative that we put the phone away and fully concentrate? It may be long past time to consider how these distractions add up over the course of a day. Many people do not stop to consider the possibility that constant distractions have ramifications far beyond what we may think.
Indeed, ask your average teenager and they will tell you they are a multi-tasking expert. Then listen as they try to have a conversation with you while instagramming their friends.
The true definition of multi-tasking lies within the word simultaneous. It is not the ability to switch between two tasks, it is the ability to complete two tasks at the same time. It is the capability of the brain to think about two different things at the exact same time.
Modern mythology would have us understand that multi-tasking is the ability to have several tabs open in our web browser while leaning over a text book and video chatting with a friend. And while this is possible, we are not doing any of these tasks at the exact same time. Our attention fluctuates between each task, maybe even nano-second by nano-second.
Even within the confines of our 'revised' definition, are we still any good at multi-tasking? How well are we accomplishing any of the tasks if we are not fully applying ourselves to one?
Research shows that our brains are ill-equipped to bounce back and forth between higher level thinking tasks - and if we do try, chances are that we will not do either task really well.
Certainly there are things that our bodies and brains are built to do simultaneously. We may call it muscle memory, like walking and talking, or riding a bike and listening to music. But, in terms of tasks that require us to think, analyze, or synthesize information, we must consider that we most likely will not achieve the best results if we try to focus on more than one at a time.
A study done in 2009 at Stanford University (Media Multitaskers) attempted to pinpoint the special ability possessed by those who claimed to be excellent at "media multi-tasking". Not only was no special skill discovered, those who multi-tasked during simple memory or spatial recognition tasks performed much lower than non-multitasking test subjects. Multi-taskers had difficulty organizing, sorting, and filtering information, and were unable to separate tasks they were attempting to complete simultaneously. They could not stop themselves from thinking about the task they were not doing.
Some studies suggest it is possible for the human brain to hold and attend to two higher level tasks at a time (Motivated Multiasking) and that our brains actually divide themselves to attend to both tasks. However, the costs to efficiency and accuracy must be factored in. It takes extra time to toggle back and forth and information does get lost in the switch.
Are we evolving?
Some researchers believe that constant multi-tasking will negatively affect overall "concentration and in-depth thought" and that these skills will become highly valued in the future (Questioning) However, opinions vary on this issue.
Professors at Harvard and Hamilton College believe our brains are adapting to manage a constant influx of information. Perhaps the skill of moving quickly between tasks and the ability to attend to small bits of information will be an asset. Perhaps it already is.
Either way, many of us undertake to multi-task multiple times a day. But, do we know when to slow it down and concentrate when we need to?
Teens and multiple tasks
As an educator, I am most definitely teaching the natives when it comes to technology. Quite often I learn just as much from them as they do from me. But, when it comes to multi-tasking, they espouse the age-old teenage invincibility. We adults, I am told, cannot multi-task. We are old. They are young, with young brains, and they are, of course, much better with technology anyway.
How do we get teenagers to see the value of concentrating fully on one task at a time? Is it possible to demonstrate that true multi-tasking is, well, impossible?
In my 7th grade Information Technology class each year I have students try the following experiment. They read aloud from a randomly selected piece of text while writing a completely different sentence on the board at the same time.
The results: they do neither task well and they discover that they are not doing both tasks at the same exact time.
No matter what the studies do show, the attempt by all of us to toggle back and forth between multiple tasks is most likely here to stay, sans any Revolution-type outages. It is the recognition that full concentration is preferable when undertaking certain jobs.
For example, would we want our doctor to text his way through medical school?
To fully focus and commit to one task at a time, especially when reading and learning, will only increase efficiency (save us time) and increase comprehension. The patterns and habits formed in primary school will follow our students throughout life. It is essential that teachers and parents encourage their children to put away the phone, turn off the tv, and read that chapter - beginning to end.
Media Multitaskers Pay Mental Price, Stanford Study Shows, Stanford Report, August 24, 2009
Millennials Will Benefit and Suffer Due to Their Hyperconnected Lives, Pew Internet, Feb 29, 2012 by Janna Anderson, Lee Rainie
Motivated Multitasking: How the Brain Keeps Tabs on Two Tasks at Once, Scientific American, April 15, 2010