Psychology, Psychology in the world

How to keep your plates spinning during lockdown

Why is working from home especially demanding? Dr Gemma Briggs from the School exposes the myth of multitasking and explains the cognitive processing involved when we try to combine different life activities.

As I write this, I can hear my kids in the background speaking to their friends on Skype. In this strange time of social distancing and lockdown, we’re all adjusting to changes to our lives at home. While the children are keeping up important contact with friends – something which is hugely important for all of us – I’m thinking about how I can reasonably manage to work while also being around to help keep them entertained.

I am used to working from home so have had far less of an upheaval than many others who are usually office-based. What I’m not used to is trying to simultaneously work out how to multiply fractions, read a story, make an origami Easter chick and wonder when I’ll be able to walk properly after completing two days of PE with Joe Wicks….oh, and do some work!

As a cognitive psychologist, I’ve spent a long time researching human attention – particularly multitasking. This is useful as it can help to explain both what our brains are capable of and what they are not. How we apply our attention to a task depends on the situation we are in, the goals we have, and our ability to control our attention. This can all change from moment to moment, depending on what else is going on around us, what we’re thinking about, or what else we are trying to achieve at a given time. For this reason, psychologists tend not to consider ‘attention span’ as a useful measure of what someone is capable of focusing on. We’re more interested in how people control their attention for a particular task, and how that may change over time – especially if further tasks are introduced which also need attention.

When we talk about attention, we discuss it in terms of the cost to us in terms of the mental resources it requires (‘pay attention’). This acknowledges an important point: while we may well process information that we’re not consciously aware of, we need to expend mental resources to truly focus on a particular task – we can’t assume that our brains can automatically process information at a high enough level without there being some cognitive cost. This is sometimes forgotten when we talk about multitasking, where our brains are often considered to be analogous to a computer which can carry out several processes in parallel. In reality, our brains don’t function like computers. While we are capable of carrying out more than one task at a time, we don’t achieve this by dividing our attention between tasks, rather we continually shift our attention between them. Therefore, while we may feel that we’re multitasking, we’re not: when we shift attention to one task, we fail to monitor performance in the other task. When we return to our original task, there is a lag in our ability to get back up to speed on what we were doing.

To complicate things further, the types of task we try to do at the same time can also affect how well we perform. If two tasks need the same type of cognitive resources and processing (e.g. reading a book and watching TV) our brains will struggle to cope, due to competition for these shared resources. The likely outcome is that one task ‘wins’ most of attention. Tasks which require different processing and resources (e.g. listening to music and reading a book) may be easier to maintain up to a point, but research consistently shows that when we try to share attention in this way we usually perform both tasks less well than if we had completed them individually. Of course, there are also individual differences here – I, for example, am incapable of listening to music while writing, despite compelling research theory explaining that it should be possible!

So, what does this mean for people who are trying to work whilst caring for children or other family members? Research tells us that the best approach is to try to divide your time, rather than your attention, so you’re not attempting to multitask. Speaking as someone who has just folded an origami chick during a video conference call, I’m aware that this is easier said than done! However, if possible, try to have a loose timetable which gives everyone the time to complete certain tasks, whether that is schoolwork, playing outside, or doing your day job. Part of that schedule should also include time to be spent together. This helps to manage everyone’s expectations. When you do have some clear time to complete work, try to reduce your distractibility from things like your phone or social media. If you can focus your attention wholly on your work, for whatever time you have, you are likely to be more productive. In this instance, quality can win out over quantity.

Of course, even the best planning can easily unravel, so managing your own expectations is important: it is highly unlikely that you can function at your usual capacity at work when you have so many other things to do. This means you need to be realistic in what you can actually achieve and, most importantly, be kind to yourself if you feel you’re struggling. This isn’t just the normal day job.

So, the best way to keep your plates spinning is to give each of them your attention at discrete times. But if they all fall, know that you can pick them up again…or perhaps decide that a few can stay on the floor for the time-being.

You can read more about Gemma Brigg’s research here

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s