Saturday, 11 October 2014

Multitasking does not work...do schools let us down in conditioning us not to focus?

One of the fashionable elements to productivity (and education) over the past twenty years is the concept of multitasking. Multitasking is the supposed ability to get more than one task done at a time: multitasks bask in a personal glory of how efficient they are.

The problem is that the evidence doesn't stack up.

Sitting in my living room or in the kitchen to do work was one of the most unproductive things I did. I had no focus and am easily distracted by family and phones. It's something I'd been warning my pupils about for years - don't study in the kitchen (or on the kitchen floor next to the Aga, Millie!) or in front of the tv...find somewhere quiet. And there was I struggling to get things done! So I moved offices into a relatively undisturbed environment and, hey, productivity has gone up! Less stress too.

I was guilty of trying to multitask and multitasking simply does not work..

As I wrote in an earlier blog, focus requires effort. Focus implies dealing with one thing at a time - preferably until it is done. Trying to focus on two or more things at once is counterproductive and leaves one stressed and relatively unsuccessful in completing tasks and chores.

Research from Stanford University, USA, backed up sceptics intuition that multitasks were not godlike humans completing several tasks at one. The researchers basically stated that multitaskers are fooling themselves. When working, we concentrate and focus on one thing at at time - when we shift that focus, there is a mental effort required to engage in the new task and its requirements. That can take from a few seconds to a few minutes while the brain literally re-orients itself. Shifting back to the original task, or a third task, has another corresponding hit on the mind's energy patterns.

One quick way I like to show this with pupils is to ask them to draw some mirror images of shapes - curly shapes that require a lot of right brain focus; once they are engaged and zoned in to the spatial reasoning task, I ask them a simple maths question such as 'what is 6x4+5'? Their pencil stops...you can feel the shifting brain patterns as they dig around for the maths files, they give you an answer and then return to what they were doing. The disturbance or 'task switching' saps their energy.

John Gatto in his famous Dumbing Down book on American education made a pertinent comment. If his lesson were disturbed by an outsider once, he could handle it, twice, it become more awkward to get back into the flow, three times and he lost the plot. It's about the same for me.

Multitaskers may reply, ah, but I can have a conversation while making a coffee. Sure - making a coffee has been internalised and has become such an ingrained habit as to warrant very little conscious brain power. Try the same in someone else's kitchen and you'd be stumbling for things and words.

The research also led to the banning of mobile phone use in the car in many areas. Texting takes up way too much brain capacity and although 'you can drive' at the same time, your driving skills are as severely impaired as if you were drunk! Hyman et al in 2009 did research on people walking while taking on their mobile and not noticing a clown on a unicycle whizz past. Academic fun...but with a serious twist - what if you were on the phone and you didn't notice that kid on the bike...? Poignant. One thing at a time, my friends!

Schools sometimes run on the idea of multitasking. When children are put at tables with their colleagues to learn, they inevitably have to run a multitasking programme of doing their work, conversing with another pupil, engaging in God knows what psychological games with the others at the table (shall I appear a know it all? shall I appear dumb? perhaps I'll stare at that girl opposite to make her squirm...) The old fashioned one or two joined desks facing the front policy were more conducive to productivity: the children's focus was on the lesson, not on their friends.

I've asked several pupils about how well they can concentrate in local primary schools - not very well, is the anecdotal evidence. Not surprising.

Then school curricula jump around from maths to science to geography to French to ... A mixed curriculum is inevitable in a school since we want to expose the pupils to a broad education, as we don't know a priori  what will fire their minds but the overall effect is akin to having to multitask through the day. Imagine as an adult just getting into the algebra and just about to 'click' and go 'ah-hah!' when someone pulls you away to listen to French - with much disruption in between so you forget everything you've just learned. 'What did you do at school today?' 'Not much...' Well, the kids did, they just can't remember it!

Such conditioning can snow ball into a lack of attention and inability to focus academically. Then the kid goes home and watches TV and if you've ever counted the number of scene changes on the telly, you'll find another reasoning why many people can't focus on a task for too long. Then there are online or video games...same problem!

Now, I'll raise my hand and plead guilty of attempting multitasking - I'm just so damned interested in everything that's going on around me, so I'm building up new habits to drop some tasks I do daily to focus on 'The One Thing' - great book by the way. I work on my weaknesses daily and tell my pupils how distracted I can get with the world's libraries at my finger tips or six different articles to write while trading the stock market and home tutoring. So, guilty .... but I'm doing something about it!


Wow, I've been able to write undisturbed for twenty minutes, but now the phone's ringing and I'm on call, so I'd shift attentional patterns and see who it is. Bye!

Dr Alex Moseley