A tornado of PE kits, braids, sandwiches and school jumpers left the house and I can finally focus on work. In reality, I’ll try to work despite the lack of focus: answering a business call whilst unloading a washing machine, opening the door for a postman with a half-eaten piece of toast in hand, and finishing online grocery shopping while waiting for work files to upload. Multitasking is our new modus vivendi or our ‘way of life’ – a survival mechanism developed in the midst of multiple demands that require our attention. Constant requests, notifications, emails, consent forms and deadlines force us to adapt. As a result, we learn how to do all things quickly, on the go and with divided attention.
Unfortunately, accomplishing some billion tasks before lunchtime does not make us feel accomplished, happy or fulfilled. Like in the game of Tetris, the better you perform, the faster the pace, and the faster the pace, the more likely you’ll start ‘dropping balls’ (or losing keys, or missing deadlines). If you are an average human, you can’t win. Sadly, we work, we communicate, and we parent whilst following this hectic regime as well.
Numerous studies confirm that multitasking does not make us more productive, but makes us more distracted, stressed and not present. Moreover, it shrinks our attention span. But why do we still do it? I mean, even when we don’t have to? Why do we scroll through social media while watching a movie, or read news while eating lunch, or do all of the above at the same time? The answer lies in our neurology. Our short-term working memory has a very small capacity. The brain can only concentrate on a very small number of tasks at a time. When it has to address too many demands simultaneously, in order to avoid a cognitive overload, the brain switches from one task to another, sometimes very quickly, and processes them separately. So, multitasking as such is a myth.
Here is the first trap: the action of switching produces a small amount of dopamine in the brain; it makes us feel good and makes the brain seek more stimulation every time. Even a seemingly complex task, like watching a movie – following a plot, listening to the soundtrack, evaluating characters, predicting further twists – becomes not stimulating enough, or simply boring. What is boredom? The most dreaded phrase of ‘I am bored’ does not indicate an absence of stimulation, but a cry of an overstimulated brain not being able to slow down. Sadly, most of the times parents treat the phrase ‘I am bored’ as a synonym for ‘give me the iPad’.
It is time to realise that boredom is a symptom: a symptom of a culture oversaturated in non-stop entertainment; the symptom of visual, audial and sensory overload. Many studies reveal that when we are bored, we process deep thoughts, recompose ourselves, find creative solutions. All needed for a happy and balanced personality. Let’s not deny ourselves the gift of boredom, of finding delight in focusing on one task at a time.
Multitasking is not only robbing us of the ability to focus and find pleasure in one single task, it also leads us straight into a second trap: it compromises our ability to persevere and to finish the task in hand. When switching from one task to another, the brain thinks the task is completed and disengages. Instead of working on one project until full completion, the brain enjoys the flow of constant switching. It doesn’t need the results, because it enjoys the process. All would be fine if the mechanism of instant gratification (the small amounts of dopamine and craving for more) didn’t, in fact, bring us to the point of overload; indeed, this has been proved by studies regarding the triggers of anxiety, stress and low self-esteem.
Our children live in a demand-saturated environment. They’ve got homework from school, emails and texts from friends, notifications from apps, and requests from parents. For a young person, each request carries with it a sense of urgency, thus requiring action (apart from mum’s plea of ‘please, tidy your room’). Children and teenagers are still learning to prioritise and to plan ahead. As parents, we are responsible for modelling their positive behaviour, as well as helping them to avoid the traps of multitasking.
PS. If you are still able to focus, please find some practical advice below on how to build healthy habits around homework.