The hustle and bustle of life in our schools seems to be growing at an ever-increasing rate of knots; already there is really too much we have to do. This chaos is intensified by the reliance on digital devices. The constant demands for our attention results in us having to move from one seemingly important task to the next just to get through our work. This switching of our focus can give us the impression that we are able to get everything done but the evidence clearly demonstrates that our so-called multitasking results in a reduction of the quantity and quality of our output. This demand on time and the resulting efficiency loss is a problem across our economy but for schools the loss of productivity has distressing outcomes for student’s learning.
An accepted definition of multitasking is the practice of performing two, or more tasks simultaneously or more accurately in very quick succession. Examples are when you are perhaps marking an essay in the staffroom and someone comes in and asks about an event that happened last week. You stop your assessment, address the issue and return to the marking. Of course, too often many more ‘tasks’ must be addressed before you get back to the original assignment.
Fundamentally there are lots of things our brain simultaneously controls; things like our need to breathe, change our sugar levels, etc., things that are reflexive and there are some habits that are so ingrained, we act on them without consideration. At this level we do multitask. However, in the past we needed to concentrate when we were hunting for food, not only was this important for survival but when stalking dangerous prey any mistake could be fatal. So, for higher order tasks, the work we do at school the evolutionary formation of the functions of our brain, dictates that we can only seriously focus on one thing at a time.
There is plenty of evidence that multitasking degrades the quality of any one’s work. It is estimated that there is up to a 40% reduction in productivity. This occurs because of:
- The increased time it takes to get through the task. It is more that an aggregation of the actual time taken to do the task, if you added the minutes spent either uninterrupted or tallied the actual time you were ‘on task’ would not be the same. You lose time going back to pick-up where you left off.
- Our accuracy level decreases; when we shift our focus, a change referred to as context switching, we tend to forget the last part of the work from which we were distracted. We rarely go back to clarify assuming it will come back and besides we don’t have time.
This productivity loss increases as the complexity of the task we have at hand increases.
With all the extra demands placed on teachers by their employer and despite the demonstrated loss of overall productivity it is impossible to avoid multitasking, it is not a practical option. The Education Department puts more significance into volume of work they can get out of a teacher over the quality of the work from that same teacher. It is illogical but we have to live with it!
I suggest we approach this problem in two ways, the first is to manage those tasks you know you have to address, our fixed work and then also how to survive the unexpected interruptions. Let’s deal with the first challenge.
There are tasks we know we have to do in the day ahead. In a sense we have some control over these and so we can plan our time to deal with them in a structured way. Here are some suggestions:
- Make a to-do list and get the things that you least want to do over with first. When I was a child I had to eat my cabbage, I always left it until last. The fact was that I knew I had to eventually eat the cabbage and this realisation spoiled the rest of my meal. Since I have sort of grown up I get the things I don’t like done first and then I can look forward to the rest of the day.
- Prioritize your tasks - of course, there might be reasons to put some tasks at the top of the list; say a report might be due by recess, then this will be at the beginning of your day sheet. The thing is to get some structure into your plan
- Group similar tasks, some of your work will require the use of supporting resources so it makes sense to use them when they are available. Those resources also include your cognitive skills.
- Reduce distractions, the staffroom might not be the best place to get work done, other teachers will be there resulting in plenty of interruptions to take you away from your work so, if possible find a quiet place to operate.
- Monitor your progress – set yourself little short-term goals so when your reach them you get a little intrinsic reward. For example, if I have to mark 30 exams I might divide these into blocks of five. Even checking the five off in a box can give you a lift!
- Delegate tasks, if needed – there are many things you have to do that are just part of a combined task. Don’t do work that is other’s responsibility, they won’t really thank you and you’re not helping them.
At first, you will need to plan to make your to-do list but eventually it will become your ritualised approach to the day. At the end of my career creating my to-do list was in draft form at the end of the previous day and in the morning, after I checked ‘overnight events’ I finalised my ‘day sheet’.
However, in the real world of teaching no day can be planned, everyday throws-up challenges that have to be dealt with IMMEDIATELY and so whatever task you were on must be left! This is stressful and so I go to the very process I recommend whenever you are facing a challenging situation and that is to put on your boundaries (see Newsletter - Teaching Practical Boundaries – 31 July 2017). In summary, do the following:
- Stay Calm – this is always the critical step but particularly when switching your focus. Remember, it is the last thing you were focusing on that is least remembered so while you are take taking a breath, think seriously about where you are up to in your task. This allows you to return with a bit more certainty and at least know you should back-track to revise this part of the work. Of, course sometimes things are extreme so make it your practice to always revise the last processes you made when you return.
The following deals with the boundaries.
- What is Really Happening – once you have closed the previous task then deal with the current issue. Ask the question what is really happening and when you have this you ascertain the following:
- Who is Responsible, if it’s my responsibility then I have to do something to make things right
- If it is someone else’s fault, I have to know what I want and then decide what I have to do to make that happen.
- Take-Action, if you want things to change you have to act. Eventually your involvement in the distraction will be over and so you can return to your current task.
Just as you made sure you closed down the task before you were distracted it is very important that you closed down the distraction before you get back to work. If the event has been stressful you might need some time to debrief and gather your thoughts. Don’t rush back straight away because the quality of your efforts will be diminished because you are still thinking about that event.
The need for multitasking is inevitable in today’s schools. However, the loss of efficiency could be reduced by your ability to plan your approach to the tasks you must do.