Multitasking and Time Management

Media Multitasking: An Important Skill or a Damaging Habit?

Most of us can relate with the experience of being interrupted by a digital intrusion while trying to focus on another task. A cell phone vibrates or lights up from an alert of a text message or an email, and instantly we shift our focus to attend to the message. However, many of us often seek out distractions and divert our attention from work to the lure of social networking sites, news articles, or our favorite blogs, or online shops.

Technology pulling our focus away from a task is not only a problem for kids, but for adults as well.

Some parents feel that kids would benefit from working around digital disruptions, since they will need this skill their entire lives. On the other hand we don't want kids to develop enduring bad habits in which their learning and school work will suffer.

The challenge in today's society is how can we manage technology's disruptive potential.

What Does the Research Say?

Brain researchers say what many people call multitasking should really be called "rapid toggling" between tasks, says Bob Sullivan, an NBC News Journalist. This is when the brain quickly switches from one topic and another. This involves "switching costs", in this case the time it takes to re-immerse your mind in one topic or another.

Many people seem to overestimate their ability to be able to multitask, such as a student who believes that he can text and listen to a lecture simultaneously, actually cannot, according to brain expert Annie Murphy Paul, author of "The Brilliant Blog". Paul claims that multitasking while doing academic work is very common among young people, but leads to spottier, shallower, and less flexible learning.

A study was conducted by Larry Rosen, a professor at California State University-Dominguez Hills, in which 263 students were observed in their normal study environments-bedroom, library, and den. These students were told to work on school work for 15 minutes, and even though the students knew they were being watched, they were unable to resist texting or using social media. The "on-task" behavior started to decline at the 2 minute mark, and only 65 % of time was used focusing on school work.

When students split their time between digital distractions and school assignments, it inevitably takes the assignment longer to be completed. All this switching between tasks wears out the brain, makes learners tired, and less competent. Furthermore, several studies have shown the information learned while partially distracted is often quickly forgotten, and the learning is tragically shallow.

Dangers of Multitasking on the Brain

We all know the dangers of texting on the phone while driving, but what about when forming a brain? A 2009 study found that when extraneous information was presented, participants who did a lot of media multitasking performed worse on a test than those who don't do much media multitasking. Constant distraction affects not only how well kids learn, but also how the brain absorbs the new information. Multitaskers fire up the striatum, which is part of the brain that encodes the learning more like habit, or what is known as procedural memory. However, those who were allowed to focus on a task without distraction relied on the hippocampus, which is the heart of the delcarative memory circuit. The focusers could apply the new skill more broadly, but the multitaskers could not.

Multitaskers reliance on rote memory would be all well and good if you want a job on an assembly line, however, if you want a well-paying job that involves high level thinking, you better be able to exercise the hippocampus.

So What About Music?

The documented benefit of music is its ability to boost your mood, which can certainly have its advantage for adolescents about to dive into hours of homework. When it comes to focus and performance, it is unclear to the benefits of music. Some studies find that certain types of music may help some people with focus and performance, such as music without words. However, some studies show otherwise.

There is a variation of how music influences processing and performance, and parents need to let their child experiment with different conditions ( music, no music, music without lyrics,) that may help him or her learn more about their own personal style.