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Multi-Tasking Doesn’t Prepare You for College!

Are You Multi-Tasking During this Pandemic?

A few posts back, we wrote about the importance of setting good habits during the pandemic. Since many students have been attending classes on their computers, and in general spending a lot of time on screens, we thought we would take the time to examine multi-tasking, since, computers and screens seem to encourage multi-tasking behavior!


The Pandemic’s Impact on Learning


Having so much autonomy in the pandemic, in terms of academics, has had different impacts on students, depending on their levels of independence, of self-management. In the Harvard Gazette’s interview of Paul Revelle, the Francis Keppel Professor of Practice of Educational Policy and Administration at Harvard Graduate School of Education, Revelle explained that:


Some students will be fine during this crisis because they’ll have high-quality learning opportunities, whether it’s formal schooling or informal homeschooling of some kind coupled with various enrichment opportunities. Conversely, other students won’t have access to anything of quality, and as a result will be at an enormous disadvantage.


The Pandemic is a Window on College Life


So, how are you doing? Getting stuff done? This time is a great test of your ability to manage your own time applied to various goals - just like college! (And life in general!) Which camp are you falling into?


If multi-tasking is so great, all the great minds do it? Right? WRONG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Computer Science Professor Who Ignores E-mail


Professor emeritus at Stanford, writer, and likely one of the most influential computer scientists ever, Donald Knuth is a busy person. He doesn’t have time for email - he tried it for “15” years between 1974 and 1990 and decided that was enough for him. If you really want to communicate with him, he is fully confident that you will send a letter by post, or, perhaps a fax.


So, if he isn’t replying to emails, what is he doing? Or, what isn’t he doing? Multi-tasking. Multi-tasking is pretty much...never...the answer to the question, “how to do X better?”


Multi-Taskers are Worse...at EVERYTHING


In fact...multi-taskers are not better...at ANYTHING, as Clifford Nass and his comrades from the Stanford Communication Between Humans and Interactive Media Lab were to find:


We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking. They're terrible at ignoring irrelevant information; they're terrible at keeping information in their head nicely and neatly organized; and they're terrible at switching from one task to another.


In fact:


There’s not a single published paper that shows a significant positive relationship between working memory capacity and multitasking.


Instead, the relationship could very well be negative:


People who frequently use many types of media at once, or heavy media multitaskers, performed significantly worse on simple memory tasks.


What is Cognitive Capacity?


Hey, guess what’s great for learning? Memory. Not just “rote” memory - just, memory - in general. Right? How can you apply what you have learned if you just...forgot? Perhaps it is because, as MIT Professor Earl Miller noted:


The average adult human can, at best, think only 3-4 things simultaneously. This is called cognitive capacity.


The Secret of Deliberate Practice


OK so instead of multi-tasking, how can we all become like our own version of Donald Knuth? With deliberate practice: spending MORE time on the hardest tasks - as Anders Ericson noted in a very famous study of elite violinists:


[D]eliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further.


Removing Temptation Helps You Focus


MIT’s Miller recommends - for adults:


Use your “executive brain” – Plan to single-task • Avoid temptation. Go “off-grid”. Put away your cell phone when you drive. Turn off your email/web access for a while. • Block out time to single task. Tell yourself that you will work on project X and nothing else for the next few hours • Prioritize. Work on your most important tasks first. Then you won’t feel pressure to multitask. • Be self-aware and resist. Recognize that humans have the temptation to multitask but that it is not effective.


Multitasking invites TEMPTATION. Guess what? Humans have a limited amount of willpower. Research shows that people who say that they are good at self-control are actually removing temptation from their life.


Be An Olympian - At YOUR Thing


One of our recent posts addresses how you actually form habits - something some of us here at Enlighteens Education learned from reading James Clear’s book, “Atomic Habits.” If you are transitioning from being addicted to multi-tasking and want to change your routine for the sake of your productivity, Clear’s book is a great choice.


To help you visualize what that kind of focus and concentration looks like, i.e., the OPPOSITE of multi-tasking, consider athletes!


Have you ever heard of a high school varsity athlete who told you that she or he was doing X sport while also playing on their phone? No, of course not! Now, why is that? What is it about multi-tasking that just doesn’t help you be a better athlete? Or better at anything, really? It is instructive to think about what athletes do to become their very best.


When I have worked with students whose athletics were part of their college admissions process, their schedules were absolutely packed. “Practice” might include time before - and - after school, and on the weekends. It’s basically like a job. It will easily add up to over 30 hours, not counting actual competition GAMES. Do you think that level of focus permits multi-tasking? Probably not. Your coach would probably flip out if she or he sees you on the phone during practice!!!


Oh, and, usually being a great athlete means you have been doing your sport for many, many YEARS. Even if you are not “competitive” in that you are not a Junior Olympian or something, pouring yourself really into your sport means focus over time. That is the opposite of multi-tasking.


What if you are not into sports? What if you are not an athlete? Well, there are still tons of things you want to practice, learn, etc. we’ve known students who were into art, helping their family, music, robotics, volunteering in their communities, and any mixture of those!


The Real World Demands Obsession


The real world rewards actual focus, concentration and persistence - these are the OPPOSITE of distraction and multi-tasking. It’s also important to figure out the right thing you want to really focus ON. Penelope Trunk confesses that she knew she did not desire winning like the Olympian players she was competing against:


I don't have the tenacity to be an Olympic athlete, but my experience playing against those athletes makes it so clear to me that we can each be a big winner if we find the spot in the world where we do have that tenacity.


Her “spot in the world” was business; she has successfully launched multiple start-ups:


I see this in the start-up world. I have had three start-ups. In each case I've been absolutely obsessed with seeing it through to funding and getting my idea off the ground.


Obsession probably does look a bit insane, and there was a time that Trunk thought her competitors took themselves perhaps a bit too seriously:


There was a time when I thought those women who were killing me each week were insane for caring so much...Now I see that on some level, that drive to win no matter what will always look insane. But it's the only way to get outsized results from your efforts.


Educational Perspective


Over the years, we have seen the context in which students are pursuing their homework, personal projects / etc. is important. Time of day, place, etc. - if you can choose the variables so that you maximize focus and concentration, all the better. So is the overall family dynamic - since the time spent at home often means young people are experiencing positive or negative feelings about their academics.


Sometimes the “multi-tasking” or “distraction” is a way to escape these unpleasant feelings. Trying to do homework while also playing video games would be something worth examining as a family, together. Does it actually help you work better, faster, etc.? The same goes for other types of multi-tasking; do you understand what is at stake when you play on your phone for hours?


Observing how well you manage this pandemic time is a test of how you might manage your time in college. So use this time well to strengthen your skills and make observations about yourself!!! We bring you this topic so that you get a glimpse of the kinds of issues we help families resolve together so that they can move forward with their goals.



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