Friday, April 11, 2014

Why I'm Going to Try to Unitask...or is it Monotask?

I don't know how it is at your house, but here, we struggle with homework.  The biggest problem is getting the girls to sit down and concentrate.  In an effort to get the homework done, I have now banned after school TV and activities, engaged in mid level bribery involving after dinner desserts, and threatened to text and email teachers about the lazy, lazy children in my household who will not do their homework.  (I have gone so far as to complete the text and wave the phone in my child's face with my thumb hovering over send.) None of these measures work for longer than an afternoon, so we tend to get into a constant cycle of threats, bribery and recrimination. And even with all the drama worthy of an episode of Scandal (but none of the fun) I still constantly find myself telling the girls to focus, for the sweet love of G-d, just focus, and get your work done.
This image used from this page

I recently realized, of course,  that I might be to blame for their inability to start and finish a single task.  I've been setting a horrible example, see, by constantly trying to do several things at once.  And I'm not talking about things like reading the paper while having a cup of coffee or working on beads while listening to music. I'm talking about multitasking episodes like putting the groceries away while talking on the phone while opening and trying to read the mail.  This might explain why I recently found the envelope for my electric bill in the kitchen cupboard.  I'm talking about cooking dinner while giving one girl a shower and helping the other with that pesky homework.  This could possibly be the reason that I find myself trying to clean up a ring of burnt, boiled-over rice from the stove-top while figuring out how to make it look like Fiona's homework does not, in fact, have the dried remains of a soapy hand print obscuring two of her spelling sentences.  Ay-yay-yay! The multitasking never ends!

And now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I have to reveal that I am fine-tuning this post (I know, who thought I fine-tuned, right?) while I'm at work at the post office.  So this isn't exactly a rant against multitasking, but more of a reminder to myself, and anyone else who thinks they need reminding, that we might be losing something when we try to do too much at once.

Which brings me to another realization:  apparently, what we call multitasking is actually task switching. Even though we think we're doing several things simultaneously, we're actually juggling activities quickly. And we all know what juggling leads to, don't we?  Eventually, all you have left are broken balls...

This article notes that we humans have been trying to do multiple things at once since we started, you know, doing things.  It's an adaptive survival skill dating from the stone age when hunters and gatherers had to search for sustenance as they avoided becoming sustenance for the bigger animals.   Those left at the cave (let's face it, probably the cave-gals) had to be aware of many things at once too, like predators, the elements, ways to use that dangerous new thing called fire to make the hunted and gathered food edible without burning everything else to a crisp, rock-climbing cave-kids hopped up on sugary berries... the list goes on.    
Image from Wikipedia

No wonder we find cave drawings... who could have all that going on and keep little ones from drawing pictures on the walls?  Maybe that helps explain why, according to studies published late last year, (detailed in this Huff Post article) women may be better at this quick switch than men. Who would have thought that energetic toddlers had possibly had a positive effect on mothers' evolutionary adaptation?  

But what good has all of this really done?  Those of you with a well-developed sense of irony probably already guessed that it hasn't done any good.  This article , directed at business people, but pretty appropriate for all chronic multitaskers, outlines the perils of trying to do it all at the same time. (From a site called The One Thing. It's also the source of the nifty fallen juggler image, above) The news that hit me was that multitaskers are actually less efficient than people who focus on one thing at a time, because they use their brains less effectively, failing to filter distractions.  

Which brings me back around to why I started in on this is the first place-- how do I get myself off the multitask merry-go-round and set a better example for the girls, so that they can use their brains effectively and efficiently to get their homework done?  Apparently, there is help.  This article reminds graduate students of "the lost art" of how to do one thing at a time, in order to get a project finished.  It seems that those of us who were sold on the wisdom of multitasking have trouble giving it up. The suggestions in the article are so simple, they should work for me and my kids.  Clear your space.  Clear your mind.  Put your butt in the chair.  And focus, for the sweet love of G-d!  All I can do is try to set a better example...

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