Why your kids aren't really that good at multitasking

by on 23rd January 2020
Why your kids aren't really that good at multitasking

An extract from:

The Rubber Brain: A toolkit for optimising your study, work, and life! 

(ISBN 9781925644081)

By Sue Morris, Jacquelyn Cranney, Peter Baldwin, Leigh Mellish, Annette Krochmalik



Compared to just 100 years ago, the choice of activities (work or play) in which humans can engage has increased exponentially, helped along greatly by technology. For example, one hundred years ago, the main forms of family entertainment were music-making, playing physical or mental games, reading, or making things (yes, this was before even television!). Now, the choice of entertainment is vast and highly personalisable. For example, we can download music, movies or television series onto almost any device, and watch anything, anytime, and any place.

Along with this technological explosion, the nature of work life has also changed dramatically. For example, most people in Western societies have significant choice in their careers, and their day-to-day roles are constantly changing. The demands on our personal and work lives have also increased significantly, and as a result we are expected to undertake multiple tasks simultaneously. We have gotten so used to talking on the phone, finishing our breakfast and watching YouTube simultaneously that we unsurprisingly believe that we can effectively multi-task. Indeed, in many cases this is true. If you do not really have to attend to what your mother is saying (Aunty June is at it again), then you can concentrate on chewing your toast while watching a cat try on mittens. 

However, there’s a catch. Your brain can’t actually do all those tasks simultaneously; you just think it can. If, for example, you’re watching cat videos while reading an article for class tomorrow, you likely won’t absorb much of either, making the in-class discussion the following day pretty awkward.

While you may think that you are an excellent multitasker and can study for an exam at the same time as watching a cat ride a dog, research tells us two things: (1) you can’t really multitask; and (2) thinking you can might have negative consequences. 

The brain doesn’t really do attention-demanding tasks simultaneously as we think it does, rather, it just switches between tasks quickly. Each time you move from watching those cats, to studying about Pavlov, there is a stop/start process in the brain, which takes time away from both tasks. So when you are ‘multitasking’, you are actually repeatedly interrupting the process of memory consolidation for the material you are studying. This means that come tomorrow in the exam room, you will find less in your long-term memory than you had led yourself to believe was there. Thinking you can multitask is an easy trap to fall into, but you can’t escape the limits of human memory! If there is hard work to be done in terms of memorising facts or working through challenging material for an assessment, then don’t try to multitask. Eliminate distractions so that you can focus on one attention-demanding task at a time, the way your brain is designed to.

Turn off your phone, shut your door.