Monotasking vs multitasking: Finding the balance
Summer is here and the kids are looking forward to their break. You want to make the time together special but you have a million things to do. Down at the pool your attempts to complete that homework assignment is competing with calls of "Mom/Dad watch this!," as they try to perfect the dive or belly flop. You answer with, "That's great" even though you didn't quite catch the entry. As a parent you know that multitasking is an essential tool in order to manage your life, but in the back of your mind you have always known what scientists have now confirmed - it is nearly impossible to effectively multitask.
But what about monotasking? Focusing on one thing at a time sounds like a marvelous luxury, just think of it, complete focus on the mid-term paper with no distractions, just you and the computer. But your phone is vibrating, the dog is barking, and you need to eat. Then the guilt ensues, "I can't do anything right!" Oh how much of a burden we place on ourselves to get it just right.
Finding The Balance
Maybe the most effective place lies somewhere in the middle. Our brains may not be designed for multitasking but neither are they designed to solely focus on one thing for long periods of time. According to Dianne Dukette and David Cornish in their book, The Essential 20: Twenty Components of an Excellent Health Care Team, common estimates for sustained attention to a freely chosen task ranges from about five minutes for a two-year-old child, to a maximum of around 20 in older children and adults.
While we can't solve all of the issues of time management we can offer some easy tips to help you alleviate the guilt, get some quality time with the family, and get that paper done on time.
1. Dedicate short blocks of time of extreme focus on one thing
The key here is leveraging short periods of time. Schedule out 20 minutes and take a break of 10-15 minutes. This will keep you focused but knowing you will have time to check your email, pick-up the kids, or prep for dinner.
2. Be prepared to "switch off"
Consider this excellent example from a recent NPR article:
Humans, they say, don't do lots of things simultaneously. Instead, we switch our attention from task to task extremely quickly. The part of the brain that does this is called the "executive system." It's a bit like one of those cartoon conductors telling the orchestra: louder, softer, faster, slower. You come in here. You be quiet for a few measures. The conductor in our heads lives in the brain's frontal lobes, basically above your eyes.
Daniel Weissman expands on this illustration as the primary researcher focused on this area of expertise at the University of Michigan by explaining in the article that, "Executive processes allow us to make plans for our future behaviors. They allow us to exert some sort of voluntary control over our behavior." This system also helps us achieve a goal by ignoring distractions.
3. Combine Complex thinking with simple tasks.
Some of the greatest inventions of our time have been discovered by someone doing simple tasks. One of the best examples of this was the eureka moment that led to the invention of velcro:
One day George de Mestral took his dog for a walk in the woods. When he and Fido got back, Mestral noticed burrs all over his pants. The tricky little devils would not come off.
Louis Pasteur said, "Chance favors the prepared mind," and boy was Mestral prepared. Looking at the burrs under a microscope, he saw that they had tiny hooks that had attached themselves to the loops of thread in his pants.
No word on whether he was specifically thinking about kids who can't tie their shoes when he brought Velcro to the world, but they are certainly among his most satisfied customers.
By engaging your mind in thinking outside of a simple task you may be able to figure out how to get it all done and still enjoy a glass of wine.
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