The Myth of multitasking
Simon had been struggling to get his homework done on time, and his grades were slipping. His parents complained to the school that he was getting too much homework, and they called my tutor friend Andrea to help.
In their first lesson, Simon insisted on putting music on in the background. Suddenly his mobile phone chirped with a message. Andrea protested and Simon said “It’s ok, I can multitask.” He stopped writing and responded to the message. In the next few minutes his computer screen lit up with a few more messages and he answered his brother on the home intercom. By the end of the hour he had done less than half of what they’d expected to cover.
The Science behind multitasking
He believed that he could multitask without a dip in productivity but his brain did not play along. The sticking point was the anterior prefrontal cortex, the brain’s control centre. It monitors activity within brain and information from the external world, and decides what is most urgent and relevant at a given moment. Then it activates and suppresses appropriate parts of the brain so the information can be processed.
This is what happened in Simon’s brain as he started to write his essay and then got interrupted:
In the time it took Simon to respond to the message, the information relevant to his writing had faded somewhat, or had been replaced by information from the message. Thus, returning to the task, he virtually had to start over: “Now, where was I?”
Switching tasks releases dopamine, which serves to momentarily increase brain performance, and also makes multitasking a bit addictive. Researchers at Stanford University spent years looking into the benefits of multitasking, and failed to find a single one. They concluded that if you attempt to do two tasks at the same time it takes about 50% longer than if you do them sequentially. Moreover, in numerical and letter-based tasks you are likely to make twice as many errors.
Top tips to help your students leave multitasking behind
- Hide mobile phones from view: researchers from the University of Texas found that people who had a smartphone within view are worse at conducting tasks and remembering information.
- If devices have to be used, notifications should be turned off, and they should only be checked at set times
- Have students ask family and friends not to disturb them when they’re working.
- Take regular breaks (to avoid boredom which can lead to the desire for distraction)