The Toll of Multi-Tasking on Focus and Concentration

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As our Middle School sons and daughters are moving from the concrete thinking of elementary school to the abstract realm of higher thinking, how do we as parents create the optimal study environment for their academic success?  How do we teach our children to focus and concentrate in a time where 20+ different social sites and devices call for their attention every minute of every day?  For that matter, how do we as adults find the time and space to focus and concentrate in today’s fast-paced culture?  

Multitasking is one of those things we have all been taught to be the mark of a successful person, the means by which one can “do it all” and save time in order to then be able  to HAVE more time – for such things as focus and relaxation.  Why, then, do we – the masters of multi-tasking – all feel tired, over-worked and anxious?  Why, in fact, do must of us – teens and adults alike – feel we have LESS time, that we hardly ever relax and that we can never get on top of it all?

Multitasking: Fact or Fiction?

Earl Miller, a Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT, has found that – for the most part – human beings cannot focus on more than one thing at a time.  “People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves,” says Miller. (1)

We as adults know that we can read an article while talking to a colleague on the phone.  We can check our email while participating in a meeting at work….  Or can we?

Miller’s research shows that we are not truly multi-tasking – our brain cannot actually pay attention to two things simultaneously.  Instead we are “shifting our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed.” (1)

We can, in fact, do certain “natural activities” at the same time – such as walking and chewing gum.  However, for most activities we do, where we need to pay attention, the area near the front of the brain, called the prefrontal cortex, jumps to action. This area, which covers both the left and right side of the brain, is a part of the brain’s “motivational system. It helps to focus your attention on a goal and coordinates messages with other brain systems to carry out the task.” (2)

According to the research of INSERM neuroscientist Etienne Koechlin, when we are focused on doing just one thing (writing an email, talking on the phone, reading an article), the right and left sides of this prefrontal cortex work together.  However, when we try to do two things – both of which need our attention – at the same time, the right and left sides work separately.   These findings seem to suggest that when there are two concurrent tasks to accomplish, the brain divides in half.  This is a remarkable finding.

Even more interesting, Koechlin’s research in a study of university students found that the students who reported spending more hours using multiple forms of media (typing a paper while checking Facebook and answering texts) at the same time than simply on just one form of media or on one task actually performed WORSE on the tests he gave them to assess their ability to switch from one task to another than those who simply focused on one thing at a time.  He also found that these same students had a much harder time ignoring external distractions, thus lowering both their focus and their concentration on their studies.  Multi-tasking actually decreased their performance on tests and decreased their ability to filter out distractions.

Scientists are finding that multi-tasking not only can actually slow our work down in the present time – but that it can actually be quite damaging to our brains over time.  It has been shown to “increase the flow of stress hormones and adrenaline…decrease the strength of our working memory and affect our ability to focus.” (2)   Those who are constantly breaking from their studies or current task to reply to an email or a text actually have been shown to have similar effects on their minds as someone who lost an entire night’s sleep.  “Downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body,” said Dr. Rich of Harvard Medical School. “But kids (today) are in a constant mode of stimulation.”  (3)  It is no wonder, then, that the majority of our society feels run down, exhausted and never on top of their work.

What does this mean for our children, then, in an age where social media and social pressure are demanding they multi-task – almost without ceasing? 

TV teaches our teens to concentrate less than 5 minutes between commercials, and our children’s many varied devices and social sites compete and ding for their attention.  With all the research done on the effects of multi-tasking, especially with media, our students need to be re-trained and re-focused in order to truly become in-depth learners and thinkers.

Creating an intentional place where study can be free of competing distractions is paramount if we want to create in our children the life-long habits of focus and learning. Teaching our children to do one thing at a time rather than to multi-task – to create a time for study, a time for checking social media and a time to talk on the phone rather than doing all of the above at one time – is a gift that will have a lasting and life-long impact on their brains and their lives.  Ultimately, this also gives our children many things for which our society longs – indeed ALL of us long – peace, quiet and deep-soul rest.

In conclusion….

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As you take all this in, turn off your laptop, put your phone on silent, close your research journals and simply sit in a quiet place in your house. Without multi-tasking, begin to imagine and mentally design this sacred area and time of study for your child, where you teach them to do only one thing at a time.  Help them begin the task today of creating a life-long habit of true, deep and concentrated learning, that not only feeds the mind but brings true rest in the midst of our often harried and busy lives.

  1. “Think You’re Multi-tasking?  Think again”  by Jon Hamilton
  2. “The Multitasking Mind”  Source: Society for Neuroscience
  3. “Wired for Distraction”  by Matt Richtel

Tonja Detwiler

Mrs. Tonja Detwiler, the Director of the Middle School at The Stony Brook School, has a Bachelor of Science from Gordon College in both English and Middle School Education and a master's degree from SBU in Linguistics. Tonja is a graduate of The Stony Brook School and has worked at The Stony Brook School for 21 years. Tonja has served in various roles at the school, including a Middle School English teacher, Middle School Director (Fall 1998-Spring 2000), Director of Residential Life, Dorm Mom, Dorm Head and Director of Student Leadership. Tonja resides on the campus of The Stony Brook School with her husband Pat and her three children, Hannah ('18), Rebekah ('20) and Joshua ('22).

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