May 29, 2020
Multitasking: Meaningful, Myth, or Mistake
Each EmpowerED 3.2.1 features a brief summary of my musings about and learning from multiple disciplines as they apply to leadership in education.
3 Big Ideas
Being home these days working remotely and observing my 13-year old navigate distance learning, virtual violin lessons and orchestra, tennis, and remote choir I started to think about multitasking and how it can be a tool of productivity or a giant goat rodeo. I’m leaning towards the rodeo. Here’s why…
- The Myth of Multitasking: Think you can multitask well? Think Again was written by Nancy K. Napier; in it she points out research in neuroscience tells us that the brain doesn’t really do tasks simultaneously, as we thought and hoped it might. In fact, we just switch tasks quickly. Each time we move from hearing music, to writing a text, or talking to someone, there is a stop/start process that goes on in the brain. That start/stop/start process is rough on us. Rather than saving time, it costs time (even very small microseconds that add up). It’s less efficient, we make more mistakes, and over time, it can sap our energy. Napier shares a fun quiz to see how well you actually perform when multitasking, or switch-tasking, as she coins. Check it out at The Myth of Multitasking on PsychologyToday.com. Makes a lot of sense!
- According to Meyer, Evans and Rubinstein in Multitasking: Switching Costs by the American Psychological Association, evidence suggests that the human “executive control” processes have two distinct, complementary stages. They call one stage goal shifting (“I want to do this now instead of that”) and the other stage rule activation (“I’m turning off the rules for that and turning on the rules for this“). Both of these stages help people to, without awareness, switch between tasks. That’s helpful, right? Not always–problems arise when switching causes conflict with demands for productivity and safety. In schools and classrooms, leaders and teachers frequently attempt to multitask in order to get more done during the short academic day. After a long day, I’ve had the feeling that I worked at a lot of things and didn’t really accomplish much. Know that feeling? It might be because we neglected the importance of relationship in our effort to get it all done and didn’t do any of it well. Neuroscientist and author of The Organized Brain, Daniel Levitin offers a quick, but useful clip “Multitasking is a Myth and to Attempt It Comes at a Cost.”
- With the increase of instant information from Google and immediate responses to email and text, we have reduced our ability to do deep work and instead engage in mostly surface work. We’re actually inhibiting ourselves and hindering our individual performance when we don’t afford ourselves the time and space to engage in deep work. A 2009 University of Minnesota study and again by McKinsey Consulting, found that to acquire and understand complicated things fast, you have to learn to focus your mind and attention without giving any room for distraction. Learning requires deep work. We need to help students make deep work a priority. Have you ever watched a child seemingly study something for an extended period of time after which they have a novel insight? That’s deep work. Open classrooms and offices along with fast reply systems have some benefit, but also do not lend to the deep work needed in schools today. Grab a copy of Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport. Also check out a 5-minute animated book summary that can propel you to working deeply today.
My three take-aways for schools and classrooms, teachers and students are:
- Focus on one thing at a time and do it well. In the end, you’ll save time and do a better job. https://thatsortedlife.com/blog/the-one-thing-gary-keller-jay-papasan offers a nice summary of the Gary Keller and Jay Papasan book The One Thing.
- Find and preserve time for deep work each and every day, even just an hour to start.
- Know and understand when we are distracted and switch-tasking and refocus.
“We miss extra bits of knowledge that can add value to our lives. We sort of lack empathy because we’re multitasking all the time.”
– Kim Stolz, fashion model, author, bank executive
“The more you multitask, the less deliberative you become; the less able to think and reason out a problem.”
– Nicholas Carr, author on technology, business, and culture
What’s your “one thing” for today?
About the Author: Marcia Baldanza is also the author of Professional Practices, a Just ASK Senior Consultant. and adjunct professor at Virginia Tech. Until recently she worked for the School District of Palm Beach County, Florida, where she was an Area Director for School Reform and Accountability; prior to that she was Director of Federal and State Programs.
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