The Myth of Multitasking, by Academic Dean Brousseau-Pereira

Published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, 2/16/2021

I spent the morning in the parking lot of the vet’s office after a troubling weekend where we watched our three-legged dog struggle through her usual sniff and pee routine. She was clearly having trouble putting her weight on her back leg and I knew that something was wrong, and she needed to be seen right away.

Here’s the problem: I was also planning to get caught up on work on the Presidents Day holiday. When I called the vet, they reminded me that I would have to come for an emergency visit and that because of COVID restrictions I would most likely be waiting for a while in the parking lot before one of the vets would be able to squeeze Peggy Sue in between patients.

I agreed because there was no alternative. I set up the appointment and asked the receptionist if I’d be able to access Wi-Fi from their parking lot. I brought my laptop, figuring that I’d be able to work while I waited.

I did manage to answer a few emails. But between the vet tech calling to ask questions about my dog, trying to get said dog to stop barking at other dogs in the parking lot, and fielding questions from my husband and friends, it was difficult to focus on my work.

I was not able to accomplish as much work as I had hoped, but the situation did help me clarify what I wanted to write about this month: multitasking, or rather trying to avoid falling into the trap of thinking that multitasking is possible.

My job has many facets and I am always working on prioritizing what needs to get done first. This often means that some tasks don’t get as much attention as I’d like to give them. On a typical day, I work on projects while keeping my email inbox open. That way I can scan the emails that are coming in to make sure I catch things that are important.

Email notifications result in pulling me away from what I’m working on. I often feel like I don’t have the long stretches of time I need for important projects because I’m always being asked to respond to “fires” that need to be put out now. In truth, some of those crises do need a quick response but most do not.

What I should be doing is putting longer stretches of project time on my calendar, shutting off notifications on my email and my phone during those times, and digging into projects that require attention.

I’ve also noticed that during the pandemic it’s become more difficult to maintain my focus. Working from home, my attention is often divided between the task at hand and a question from one of my kids or a cat jumping into my lap demanding attention. I find it too easy to lose my concentration — in fact as I was writing this sentence, I got a message from a friend, read it and answered it before coming back to my writing.

The students I work with also talk about their multitasking — doing their reading for class while watching something on Netflix or texting friends while working on an assignment. They are not accomplishing as much as they believe they are.

According to Doctors Cynthia Kubu and Andre Machado at the Cleveland Clinic, human brains are incapable of multitasking. They write: “For nearly all people, in nearly all situations, multitasking is impossible.” We may think we are doing it but really we are merely switching back and forth from one activity to another, without giving our full attention to either.

Trying to multitask leads to difficulty with attentiveness and learning. I see this in classes when students are clearly focused on their cellphones rather than what is happening in the classroom (or Zoom room). I’ve also caught myself in this situation as well, reading a text during a meeting and realizing that I’ve lost the thread of what is being said.

The Cleveland Clinic doctors described a research study that found that multitasking — trying to complete homework or other projects — while using our various devices to listen to music, text, or check notifications has negative effects on learning and for students this can mean poor grades.

What does this mean for those of us who are distracted by this modern, constantly connected life? It means that we are not giving our full talent to the things that are most important to us. It’s time for us to turn off the notifications, close our email, and relearn how to monotask.

For more posts from Dean Jackie, link here.

By Jackie Brousseau-Pereira
Jackie Brousseau-Pereira Academic Dean, Director of First Year Seminars