The Myth of Multi-Tasking

Business woman multitaskingRecently, I attended the Learning and the Brain Conference in Boston where I listened to many wise people talk about how our society is under siege from “information overload.” Daniel Goleman, author of  several books including “Focus” and “Emotional Intelligence” mentioned that we process 5 times as more information today than just 20 years ago.       Multi-tasking contributes directly to this sense of being overwhelmed and over-extended.

How many of us can relate to the following scenario? We are in the kitchen at 6 p.m. trying to prepare dinner while we are talking on the phone and looking at our texts when the Beep comes in. Meanwhile, our teenage son is watching television while doing his math homework and checking Facebook. We are all hijacked by our devices into thinking that we can do all of these tasks simultaneously. However, our brains are not fooled. While we seem to be over-activated and addicted to the constant stimulation, our stress hormones rise with every text or email alert, exhaust the connections between different parts of our brain and increase our susceptibility to illness, accidents and inattentiveness.

What can we do about this unhealthy trend that promotes disconnection from ourselves and from each other? Reduce your own multi-tasking and help your kids cut back too. Here are a few suggestions:

Businessman overworked at office1. Make a conscious effort to do one thing at a time. First, this means noticing when you are multi-tasking and pausing to stop engaging in one of your activities. Examples would be NO texting while driving (a cause of over 300,000 accidents last year) and NO texting or taking phone calls during family meals. Recently I saw someone talking on his cell phone when he was biking–YIKES! How about using the time when you are doing chores or helping your kids with homework to connect with each other and take a technology break? It’s not easy to do but the pay-offs will be increased sanity and calm for you, for them and for your household. (By the way, listening to music while doing something, interestingly enough, didn’t seem to be included in the multi-tasking/information overload processes.)

2. Teach your children to turn off or put away their cell phones when they are doing homework. Set up a tech-free study period followed by a time-limited break that could include checking for texts, Snapchats, Facebook messages, etc. I recommend starting with 45 minutes for middle and high school teens for working and 10 minutes for the break. Use a timer for the break to mark its beginning and ending. For elementary school children, 20-30 minutes for studying and 15 minutes for a break seems to work well. Also, help your kids navigate fewer open tabs on their browser too so that the study period is really productive.

3. Create some time for conversations with your children when you are not distracted by your phone. It doesn’t feel good to anyone to have someone turn their attention away from you to their buzzing phone (texts, calls, emails, etc.) while you are in the middle of saying something that you think is important. This may look like multi-tasking but it’s really more like dismissing: you turn away from the person next to you towards the digital universe.

Talk to your kids about the benefits of doing fewer things simultaneously, even if it feels weird to try it. When you model this change in behavior for them and stick by the guidelines yourself that you want them to follow, you decrease the information overload and build cognitive strengths like improved attention and memory. It takes fortitude and persistence, so start slowly but don’t give up!!