We’ll call her Ashley, but she could be almost any high school student in America. She works on her homework at the kitchen table with a television playing loudly in the background, her phone alerting her to check a barrage of incoming text messages, and a computer screen that displays an ongoing Skype session with her best friend.
I wouldn’t be surprised if an iPod was playing music nearby, too.
For years we’ve chuckled about how today’s student can multitask far better than we can, and to some extent we praise this ability. It’s as if we see this constant juggling as an indicator of superior mental capability.
But we’re wrong. While multitasking might seem like an advantage, it’s actually inefficient. Recent studies have even shown it to be downright counterproductive.
Before we focus on the kids, we should look in the mirror. I’m as guilty as the next person of trying to do too many things at once. To a certain extent our society has trained us to be this way. In fact, the prevailing attitude in many work places is that you’re not a productive employee unless you’re handling multiple projects at once. Interviewees go so far as to tout their ability to multitask in order to land a job.
That’s a mistake. According to a sobering report issued by the University of Michigan, we’ve created a myth about multitasking. Instead of accomplishing one thing well, we’ve fooled ourselves into doing a half-baked job on many things at once.
The researchers called it ‘task switching,’ and essentially it’s taxing your brain. You just barely get up to speed on one project before jumping to something else, and then back again. You might think you’re skipping full-speed from job to job, but your brain doesn’t treat it that way. In a manner of speaking, it must stop, reorient itself, and then get up to speed again. And we’re asking it to do this over and over again.
In other words, it’s about the most inefficient way of completing a task. You’ll either do it more slowly, or poorly . . . or both.
So today we pat our children on the back for doing something that, in the long run, is about the worst thing they can be doing. We congratulate them on juggling five things at once, when in reality the studies show us that their work suffers.
I’ve often chided myself on not being very good at multitasking. I’ll deliberately load more things onto my plate, thinking I’ll somehow learn how to manage it. But that’s a foolish approach.
Instead, what I – and our students – should be doing is the exact opposite. Instead of working on two or three things at once, the goal should be to focus on one project and to do it well. The best thing Ashley could do would be to shut off the television, put her phone away, and call the friend later. Homework first, with no distractions.
Yes, it will take a period of adjustment, and no, she won’t like it . . . at first. But I’ve already implemented the change in my own life and – voila! – the studies are dead-on. I accomplished things faster, and – more importantly – the quality of my work improved almost immediately.
And those text messages that I didn’t see for a couple of hours? Not that important.
But, honestly, how often are they?
Dom Testa is an author, speaker, morning radio show host, and has kept a ficus tree alive for twenty two years. He’s also the founder and president of The Big Brain Club, a non-profit foundation that helps young people embrace the idea that Smart Is Cool. More info at www.DomTesta.com.
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