School is back in session. As the kids pour back into the schools, you'll see lots of new backpacks, fresh notebooks, lots of pens and pencils ... and cell phones. That's right. Check out the kids walking into school. Many of them have their faces hunched over a phone texting someone else on the other side of the building.
Cell phones have made many aspects of parenting easier. Parents no longer have to worry about where their kids have gone after school. They do not have to rely on their kids to remember to leave a note when going to a friend's house. They can alert a child that traffic has delayed them on their way to pick them up from baseball practice.
But cell phones are also one of the biggest sources of multitasking. Add to that portable video games and instant messaging, and you have a host of distractions. And this is just as true for the adult world as it is for the child's world.
How do people multitask?
There are certain things that people are able to do simultaneously. We really can walk and chew gum at the same time. Most of the time, though, when we can do two things at once, it is because one or both of those things are highly overlearned habits that don't require you to monitor how well you're doing.
A kid at school, though, is there to learn new things. (And for that matter, people at their desks at work are supposed to be focused on doing something important.) When you are learning something new, then you need to be focused on that material. If you try to do two things at once, then you end up switching back and forth between them. A few seconds of learning, a few seconds of texting, then a few more seconds of learning.
That switching back and forth makes you bad at both tasks.
Plus, there is a switching cost. It takes a bit of time for you to change your mindset when you change tasks. So, when you try to multitask, not only do you make each task less effective, you also make it slower.
Most of us, though, think we're above average multitaskers. We believe that other people might suffer, but we're actually pretty good at it. Unfortunately, multitasking also impairs the areas of the brain that you use to monitor your own performance. So, you're just not the best judge of your own multitasking ability.
The cell phone is a particular problem, because it provides a constant distraction. You never know when the next text message or email may come in. So, you tend to develop a habit to check your phone regularly. That habit starts to prey at you during the day. A kid in school who has gotten used to checking text messages regularly will frequently start wondering whether a new message has come in, which will be a distraction from school.
Ultimately, it is a good idea to put your cell phone away for the day at school or at work. Shut it off and leave it off until you are on a break or at lunch. Get in the habit of checking your texts and emails only a few times a day rather than all the time. All of this helps you to stay focused.
Follow Art Markman, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/abmarkman