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Multitasking: The Jury is Out

All my life, I thought the ability to multitask was a positive and desirable “talent” to acquire. It seemed a great way to accomplish numerous tasks in a short period of time.

Intellectually I reasoned that with all the many technological innovations at hand, life should become simpler. Yet, I wondered why it never felt so. Do you wonder the same thing? Do you often feel that the world just seems to turn faster and faster, making it harder to get everything done — even to the point of becoming overloaded, overwhelmed, and stressed out?

Do you sometimes feel “heroic” in your own little world, catching up and getting so many things accomplished, balancing all the balls in the air, and taking care of all the never-ending items that get thrown at you? I do. Yet within a short period of time, don’t we somehow find ourselves back where we started with the pace of life speeding up all over again?

While researching this topic, I uncovered a startling fact. Scientific studies now indicate that constant multitasking (chronic multitasking) is harmful to your health. Well, that got my attention!

What Exactly is Multitasking?

The term multitasking was originally derived from the computer engineering industry, and first used between 1960 – 1965 to describe the capabilities of an IBM computer system, in which tasks rotated many times a second. Multitasking then became defined as the human ability to seemingly do several things at the same time, or a number of tasks in rapid succession.

E. Hallowell, a psychiatrist, even described multitasking as “a mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously as effectively as one.” Some include in the definition, “surfing through data and picking out a few key points before moving on.”

The brain cannot possibly perform two different functions at the same time, scientists claim. Although multitasking may seem to work for a limited time, overall it is believed to be a far less effective path than doing one thing at a time.

What actually happens when we “multitask” is that the brain rapidly switches from one function to another. For example, our eyes can only focus on one item at a time. Try looking at something close to your face, then looking at something across the room. You can only have one in focus at a time, but you can rapidly go between the two.

Scientists say that during multitasking activity, data normally stored in the part of the brain designed for data retrieval becomes stored inappropriately in the part of the brain dealing with human relations, thus short-circuiting that section of the brain. The result? Relationships become impaired to the point of becoming robotic when interacting with other human beings, and desired data is not able to be retrieved from the data retrieval part of the brain. That’s an arresting thought!

What is Harmful about Constant/Chronic Multitasking?

Productivity is Affected:

  1. Much time is lost when one switches from one task to another.
  2. Organizing material becomes mentally challenging. Excess information overwhelms the brain, making it difficult to distinguish relevant from irrelevant information.
  3. Over-stimulation of the brain on a daily basis negatively impacts the brain’s ability to recover efficiently, and the constant switching takes a toll on one’s mental energy.
  4. Tuning out distractions becomes difficult for the brain, and one’s focus no longer has clarity. Memory becomes “sloppy” as a result of high and constant stress levels.
  5. Safety and production become concerns, even life-threatening as with driving a car or operating machinery.

Personal Health is Affected:

  1. Cognitive ability (reasoning) is impaired.
  2. Relaxation becomes increasingly difficult. Storing unimportant information in short term memory creates distractions, the mind strays, and concentration becomes difficult, even when on vacation or at the end of the day.
  3. Basic health is compromised when stress hormones are continually being released.

Other People are Affected:

  1. Social problems can develop when one has trouble paying attention to people.
  2. Relationships become robotic; compassion and other positive human responses are diminished.

How Does All of This Multitasking Impact Our Families and Homeschooling?

Here’s an eye-opener: Some research scientists believe it’s impossible to learn new materials when multitasking! If so, can this habit be undermining our efforts to teach our children and complete household chores, thus leading to unnecessary frustration with ourselves and our children? Is the school work taking longer than necessary? Can life become simpler by just focusing on one thing at a time? (Note: I realize that in this day and age, it is difficult to imagine attending to our many responsibilities without multitasking, but maybe there are places and situations where we can cut back, and over time develop ways to make our lives and the lives of our children less stressful.)

Healthy Habits and Suggestions:

Set Up Your Day:

  1. Find quiet times throughout the day for processing events and information, and for restoring order and balance.
  2. Delegate chores to lessen your “to do list”.
  3. Incorporate enough physical activity and exercise for all family members.
  4. Set aside specific periods of time in the day to make and return phone calls and emails, grouping them together as a task. Wait to check emails until lunchtime so you won’t wonder at the end of the day, where did the day go and question what you accomplished.
  5. Adopt the 20 minute rule per task, which means to stick with each task for at least 20 minutes
  6. If possible, limit yourself to two tasks at a time.
  7. Make sure everyone gets enough sleep.

Strengthen Family’s Relationship Skills:

  1. Teach basic manners and etiquette, including addressing people by name especially when someone enters a room.
  2. Insist on eating as a family as undisturbed as possible. Make sure bathroom breaks are taken in advance, electronic devices are turned off, and phone calls are answered after the meal. Minimize all the jumping up and down that usually occurs especially with larger families, and monitor the decibel level of conversation. Family members can speak in soft tones taking turns. Encourage slower eating and stimulating conversation throughout the meal.
  3. Encourage positive individual interactions through family games, sports, creative time, and musical performances.
  4. Answer short questions face-to-face; no yelling from room to room.

Computer Use

  1. Have 1-2 computer windows open at a time
  2. Restrict time for electronic devices, and turn devices off when not in use.

Awareness of some of the dangers of excessive multitasking is the first step. Maybe at lunchtime, you can spot-check yourself to make sure that you and your children are not unnecessarily falling into this unhealthy behavior pattern. How much time is each family member spending on electronic devices? Is this the best use of his or her time? The interesting life question, “What is the most important thing that you can be doing right now?” can help to prioritize daily activities. Remember, “You are how you spend your time and money.”

Perhaps life can become easier by being more focused on one task at a time. We don’t have to get caught up in the continuing multitask whirlpool in which busy moms, dads, and even children can sometimes find themselves. Now we know that life doesn’t have to be that crazy. Don’t beat yourself up if you multitask often. As I mentioned before, we may have to do it, but being aware of its cost can be a great step forward. Very little happens overnight; most changes involve a process over time.

The best benefits to implementing some of these changes and developing habits in this area are that our whole family can be happier and healthier, everyone’s schoolwork and chores will probably get done faster, there will be more free time for all, and everyone might feel less frustrated, be more accomplished and less stressed. Remember also that God’s graces are sufficient, and He wants us to succeed if we rely on Him. It certainly is worth a try!

About Mary Lou Warren

For 17 years, Mary Lou has been Director of Conferences for Seton and IHM Conferences. A single mom and former homeschooler. In 2013, she was interviewed on EWTN about Catholic Home Schooling, and Radio Maria has interviewed her several times. Meet Mary Lou
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