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Think twice before multitasking

December 14, 2018
By Billy Handmaker

“What looks like multitasking is really switching back and forth between multiple tasks, which reduces productivity and increases mistakes by up to 50 percent.”
-Susan Cain in “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking

As I write the next sentence, I realize that I may need to do some explaining here.  Among the many places that I find valuable information at Keystone are the fliers posted on the restroom walls. Thanks to the excellent work of our Upper School Wellness Council, I often see tips for studying or for living a healthy and balanced life.  Whether the suggestions are designed to help adolescents sleep better, eat more healthily, or get some exercise, the postings provide good and helpful ideas.

The information offered last week for how to control one’s study habits were no exception to this rule.  Although there were tips for nutritious snacks, noise reduction, and decluttering one’s room, perhaps one of the most beneficial recommendations was to “Set your phone to silent,” or better yet, “hide it in a drawer.”  As the poster said, “just receiving a notification can impair attention, reports the Journal of Experimental Psychology.”   Thank you, thank you to the Wellness Council members for pointing out what we may all know but choose to ignore.  

For years as a society, we have deluded ourselves into thinking that we can multitask and be productive.  As noted writer Susan Cain says in her important book, “Quiet,”, multitasking actually reduces, rather than increases, our productivity.  We may not like this fact, but we ignore it at our own peril.

A recent article in the New York Times called “Hide Your Phone When You’re Trying To Work. Seriously” by Tim Herrera presents research on the deleterious impact of having a phone by one’s side when trying to do something else.  As Herrera points out, “A 2017 study in The Journal of the Association of Consumer Research found that the mere presence of your phone — even if it’s powered off, and even if you’re actively and successfully ignoring it — “reduces available cognitive capacity,” which the study’s authors call “brain drain.” That’s right, even if our phone is turned off, it still demands that we pay attention to it, and thus reduces our ability to perform whatever task we’re supposed to be doing.  

The article goes on to explain the myriad ways that a phone in close proximity forces us to work even harder to focus in order so we can resist the siren’s song of our devices.  Part of the problem is that we have come to rely on our phones in so many ways that it is hard to put them away. Speaking personally, my device holds my calendar, my books, my notes, my audiobooks, my podcasts, my music, my email, some of my news sources, my weather forecast, and many other apps; and oh yeah, it’s my phone.  So, putting it out of sight is really the only way I can put it out of mind.

So, why am I discussing this topic in this week’s blog?  Next week, Keystone middle and upper school students will sit for their end-of-semester exams, and we all want them to do well.  Perhaps one way to aid them in their desire to succeed is to encourage them to put their phones in another room when they study and leave them there when they go to bed.  They will have plenty of time to check their social media or respond to texts during break. If they can learn to place their devices somewhere out of reach, they will focus better during their study time, they will retain more information, and they will be more effective on their exams.  In addition, they will sleep more soundly. We can help them, and ourselves, by putting our own phones away. Having the discipline to forego a short term gain for a longer term goal is a great habit in any area, and the results will pay off many times over. Let’s all help them learn this important life skill.