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Teach Your Children to Single Task, not Multitask

Do your children know that multitasking is bad for them?

After reading my last post, I hope you’re convinced now that so-called multitasking isn’t what it purports to be and definitely doesn’t do your children any favors in school or anywhere else. So, the next thing to do is to show them (and perhaps yourself) that “single tasking” is a much better way to go. Single tasking is definitely not rocket science, but it may require that your children break some deeply ingrained habits around their use of technology and learn new habits that will enable them to be more productive and efficient. The good news is that, with some commitment and discipline, your children can retrain those habits and, in a relatively short time and with the benefits clear, become comfortable and adept single taskers.

Given that single tasking may involve some pretty big changes in your children’s use of technology, I would encourage you to collaborate with them so they have buy into whatever changes you want to implement. The reality is that if they don’t see the value in changing the way they focus, they will resist any efforts you make with them and those efforts will be doomed to fail. Educate your children about what multitasking really is and why it doesn’t work well, especially in their studies. Then, introduce them to single tasking and show them how it can help them in so many ways.

Single tasking starts with looking for ways to maximize your children’s ability to focus and minimize their potential distractions. Let’s use your children’s homework as the setting to help them shift from multitasking to single tasking. First, if they’re like most children, they probably do their homework in the living room or family room of your house. This may mean that there is a lot of distracting activity going on around them, such as you doing chores or their siblings coming and going. So, the first step is to find them a quiet space in which they won’t be interrupted. Your first thought might be their bedroom, but, though quiet, it probably offers your children even more distractions when they get tired, bored, or stuck. A den or study, if available, is a better option.

Second, help them to get comfortable and organized. They should ideally sit in a chair that’s comfortable, but too comfortable. Sofas and beds are just asking for daydreaming or napping. Their workspace should allow them easy access to whatever they need for their homework and be uncluttered with irrelevant stuff (clutter equals distraction).

Third, and most importantly, have them put away distracting technology. This means no mobile phones; just having them in sight will be a distraction and the pings and vibrations that emanate from them are a death knell for focus. Close all irrelevant windows on their computers, especially those related to social media. Even minimized windows are a temptation and text message and social media alerts will be a constant distraction. If your children don’t have the discipline to do turn off their technology themselves, then you should step in. There is software, for example, that can turn off Internet access or block certain web sites. Definitely no television (old school, but still a huge distraction) and only instrumental music (music with lyrics is another common distraction and it interferes with effective processing and retention of information).

Your children may probably view these changes as cruel and unusual punishment, so you need to give them a little victory. So, allow them breaks in which they can, for example, check their text messages, update their Facebook pages, or call a friend. I think a five-minute break every 30 minutes is pretty reasonable.

My experience has been that children can show offer initial resistance to this shift from distracted multitasking to focused single tasking, particularly if they’re used to the former. If you can at least convince them to try it out for, say, two weeks, and perhaps even offer them incentives (bribery to initiate behavior change has been found to be effective), then you create the time to retrain their habits, allow them to become comfortable with the changes, and, most importantly, for them to see its benefits. Your children will find that single tasking is effective, that is, they’re able to focus better, learn more, and do better in school. They’ll also find it more efficient, meaning they get more done in less time, which gives them more time to do things that they want, such as use the technology that was missing while they were single tasking.