Ask students how many consider themselves expert “multitaskers” and a lot of hands will go up. Our society prizes the ability to juggle—to keep multiple balls in the air at one time. You read a difficult case assignment, peruse online news, and respond to incoming texts. In class, you listen to discussion, take notes, and check social media. You’re probably reading this blog while doing something else. We congratulate ourselves on being efficient jugglers, but are we?
Can we Multitask?
Some say the term multitasking was first used to refer to a computer’s ability to process two applications at the same time. By 1990s, the term flooded popular jargon. As technology made it increasingly possible to be available and have access to information around the clock, being a skilled human multitasker became a point of pride. The problem is that human brains are not computers. Science increasingly supports the unpopular reality that multitasking is a myth.
One “Think” at a Time
It turns out that people can only attend to one cognitive task at a time. You may be able to listen to music while you fold laundry but you cannot simultaneously pay attention to two activities that require thinking, like class reading and texting with friends. Like the juggler who can only touch one ball at a time with his hand, we can only think about one thing at a time. And yes, even students who grew up with technology lack the ability to do two thinking tasks at once. What we believe is multitasking is really “switchtasking”–switching rapidly between tasks.
Switchtasking isn’t just a name change. It turns out that switchtasking wears us out, dumbs us down, and makes us sloppy.
- Switchtasking decreases productivity by as much as 40%. One study showed that incoming emails and phone calls could cause a 10-15 point fall in IQ which is equal to a night without any sleep. Any learning you do takes longer.
- Asking your brain to operate on hyperdrive by switching from one task to another actually mimics the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder. It creates problems and exacerbates any preexisting difficulties in planning and follow-through. Learning is more scattered and less focused.
- Attending to multiple streams of information makes learning less likely to “stick.” Focusing on one thing at a time allows the brain to make deeper connections that result in more flexible long-term retention. When our attention is divided at the moment we “save” a memory, our brains don’t store it as well. Therefore, we have a harder time remembering information and transferring it to new situations. The typical law school exam requires exactly this skill of applying learned concepts to novel hypotheticals, so this finding has particular negative implication for law students.
- Switchtasking may even cause brain damage. One recent study found that people who spent significant time switchtasking on multiple devices have lower density in the region of the brain responsible for cognitive and emotional control. Continuing to behave as if we can successfully multitask may actually be changing our brain structure.
Strategies that Work
So, what is a busy law student to do? First, recognize that turning off your phone and other distractions will make your studying time more efficient. You’ll get more learning done in less time and what you learn will stick with you and be more accessible when you try to recall it. Try making your attention shifts more deliberate by developing a ritual to signify that you are moving on to a new task such as changing rooms or keeping track of your time. In short, accept that your marvelously adept and capable brain simply isn’t a computer. (Or, if you prefer, think of it as a computer that gets overloaded really quickly!)
So, feel free to walk and chew gum, check your email when the game is on, and listen to music while you bake a cake, but when learning matters, embrace the novel concept of doing one thing–or think– at a time.
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And check out these helpful posts:
- How Being a Law Student and a Functional Human Don’t Have to Be Mutually Exclusive
- How to Organize Your To-Do List in Law School
- Need More Time? Study Smart Before Your Law School Class
- Dealing With Law School Time Regret
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