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Three Strategies to Encourage Single-Tasking

Attention is under siege more than it has ever been in human history, we have more distractions than ever before, we have to be more focused on cultivating the skills of attention.

– Daniel Goleman, psychologist, science journalist, author

You have probably seen the recent viral video of a feisty eight-year-old mimicking her mother trying to work from home. Like most good satire it is funny because it contains an element of truth. In this case a mom is trying to perform several tasks simultaneously. Predictably, she starts losing her focus and her control. You can watch the full video here.

Exactly What is Multitasking?

The eight-year-old girl demonstrates the model she has witnessed of her mom trying to attend to several different goals demanding her attention at the same time. In the new reality of merging work and home, mom is trying her best to do multiple tasks required of her as both a mother and as an employee.

Teachers have provided this same model for our students for years. We pride ourselves on being able to simultaneously take roll, collect money, fill out office forms, settle student disputes, set up the Smart Board, feed the class hamster, check e-mail, return a parent text, soothe a distraught kid, refill our water bottle, and teach the lesson. And now we have the additional challenge of trying to merge digital and face-to-face responsibilities of home and work. We’ve tried hard to perfect our multitasking personae, but what are we teaching the students who watch our every move?

In the early 70’s the term multitasking was popularized to promote efficiency. Coined from the term used to describe a computer’s concurrent execution of several programs in unison, people began to believe that highly successful performers could improve productivity by combining several undertakings at the same time.

According to the American Psychological Association’s overview of multitasking research, there are three types of multitasking:

  1. Performing two tasks simultaneously. This includes talking on the phone while driving or answering email during a webinar.
  2. Switching from one task to another without completing the first task. We’ve all been right in the middle of focused work when an urgent task demands our attention; this is one of the most frustrating kinds of multitasking and often the hardest to avoid.
  3. Performing two or more tasks in rapid succession. It almost doesn’t seem like multitasking at all, but our minds need time to change gears in order to work efficiently (2006, para.2).

Goleman (2013), along with a significant number of brain researchers, refutes the misguided multitask reasoning with scientific evidence proving the skill of so-called multitasking is a myth. Neurobiologists have analyzed brain scans to find that when people say they are multitasking, they are really doing something called “continuous partial attention,” where the brain switches back and forth quickly between tasks. Most times people are not consciously aware they are doing this. The problem is that when our brains switch back and forth between tasks, our ability to focus on either task erodes.


TRY THIS:

Stop reading this article. Seriously, look up from the screen for a minute and observe what else is going on with you and around you. What distractions are present? What is keeping you from giving this piece your fully focused, undivided attention? Are you also…

  • Looking at another screen?
  • Hearing other conversations?
  • Thinking ahead to your next move?
  • Performing a physical maneuver (shuffling, moving, adjusting, etc.)?
  • Doing something else?

Think about it—our overpacked, stimulus-driven world has become so omnipresent that many of us are not even aware of how often we are distracted from and must “switch back” to the purpose at hand. We do this many times a minute, and it’s stressful.


Perhaps it is time to start calling multitasking what it is – multi-switching. Recognizing what we are doing can help us and help us teach our students how to take charge of our focused attention. We need to show our students how to limit their own distractors and better self-regulate their actions. We should model the types of behavior we want to engender in learners. The opening video reveals the behavior a young daughter has learned from watching her mom. It’s funny, but it’s also illustrative – she is distracted and frustrated.

The Distraction of Digital Media

The human brain cannot perform two tasks that require high-level brain function at once. (Performing low-level functions that take little or no conscious thought aren’t considered multitasking.) The added impact of ever-evolving digital media has further taxed attention spans, particularly in kids. Excessive task switching seems to be highly correlated to the upsurge in reported ADD, ADHD, and other interference issues involving the brain’s executive function systems.

Today’s students like to argue that because their generation grew up in a digital world, they are much better at multitasking than the adults who complain when they do it. They see multitasking as almost necessary to stay engaged, and they are likely to have more than one screen open at a time as they oscillate from one task to another.

According to a recent study from the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research (2017), close proximity of personal devices such as cell phones undermines our ability to focus even when they are silenced. The researchers argue that the mere presence of phones may occupy limited-capacity cognitive resources, thereby leaving fewer resources available for other tasks and undercutting cognitive performance.


TRY THIS:

With students, colleagues, and/or family members, take two minutes to watch the video, There’s a Cell Phone in Your Student’s Head. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3jQbyiov-k Then,

  • Reflect on what you have observed about other people’s ability to focus when their cell phone or smart device is in different positions/distances from their body.
  • Reflect on your own distractibility when your cell phone or other smart device is in different positions/distances from your body.
  • Discuss what the science says about the effect of a device’s different positions/distances from the body during certain activities.
  • Form an individual and/or group plan about where to position personal devices during certain activities.

Part of our charge as advocates for kids is to help them find the strategies they need to enable their best learning opportunities. Daniel Goleman suggests that teachers and parents routinely incorporate activities and discussions designed to help students control their attentional focus. Adults can teach and make time to practice mindfulness on a regular basis as a way of enabling students to experience the benefits of “single-tasking.”

Goleman states:

“I don’t think the enemy is digital devices. What we need to do is be sure that the current generation of children has the attentional capacities that other generations had naturally before the distractions of digital devices. It’s about using the devices smartly but having the capacity to concentrate as you need to, when you want to.” (2013)

Model Appropriate Behaviors


TRY THIS:

Inspire kids to act out of conscious thought instead of fear or boredom by helping them build their own filters. Model how to ask themselves questions like,

  • “Why am I picking up my phone? Am I bored, am I lonely, am I sad?”
  • “Am I just uncomfortable in a room where I don’t know anyone?”
  • “Why am I posting this? Is it true? Is it helpful? Will it cause pain?”
  • “Does spending time on this game or app reflect the values I have set for myself?”

Asking themselves “why” slows down impulsive or habitual actions and encourages kids to make smarter choices. It won’t hurt for adults to apply these same questions to our own actions.


The digital world is here to stay. Our kids didn’t ask for it, and for them, it has always been this way. Our job as teachers and parents is to help them learn to use the digital world to enhance but not control their lives. We need to help them practice mindfulness and show them how strategic focus on a single task can be more beneficial than attempting to multitask. More important, we must model the choices and behaviors we want to see when they decide to imitate us.


Resources:

American Psychological Association. (2006). Multitasking: Switching costs. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/research/action/ multitask

Goleman, D. (2013). Focus: The hidden driver of excellence. New York, NY: Harper Paperbacks

Silver, D. (2021). Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Raising and Teaching Self- Motivated Learners, K-12. ( 2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin Press.

Ward, A., Duke, K, Gneezy, A., & Bos, M.A. (2017). Brain drain: The mere presence of one’s own smartphone reduces available cognitive capacity. Journal of the Association for Consume Research V.2 No.2., pp. 140-154

Written by

Debbie Silver, Ed.D., is an award-winning educator with 30 years experience as a classroom teacher, professional development expert, and university professor. She has delighted audiences in 49 states, Canada, Mexico, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East with her insightful observations and astute ideas for helping assure every learner a reasonable chance at success. Debbie is the author of Fall Down 7 Times, Get Up 8: Teaching Kids to Succeed (Corwin, 2012) and co-author of Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education (Corwin, 2015) and Teaching Kids to Thrive: Essential Skills for Success (Corwin, April 2017).

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