In this busy, demanding, world we often find ourselves doing multiple things at once. We may be listening to someone on the phone, but we are also reading the page on the computer screen to check for errors on the letter we are trying to send out. We are checking for messages on our phone and boiling the water for the pasta. We are paying bills and watching the baseball game on television. Yes, we have multiple activities going on at once, but are we really multi-tasking?
Technically, research is suggesting that we can’t really be paying attention to two tasks at once. The skill that people who appear to be multi-tasking have is the ability to shift attention rapidly. In reality, the sequence for attention shifting is select, engage, focus, stop, shift, select, engage, focus, stop, shift, etc.. If we are able to do that very rapidly, it feels like and looks like we are maintaining multiple activities at once.
A really good classroom teacher is able to do this with great skill. He/she may be listening to children read but can rapidly disengage the attention when students begin talking in another part of the classroom.
Parents develop the ability to do this effectively. Mom is cooking dinner and shifting from watching the oil warm in the fry pan, to spelling a word for her daughter who is writing a sentence or her son who wants to know if 6 X 7 is 49 or 42?
Children, youth, and adults who have attention challenges often have difficulty with the process of engaging these different attention levels. Young children learn the skills of selecting – choosing something to explore – long before they learn to engage – stay with the toy or activity for a length of time. By elementary school, there is an expectation that they can sustain their attention and even shift it when something distracts them in the classroom, and then return to their original activity. That skill takes time and practice to develop.
As adults, we will often find ourselves engaging in one activity and being interrupted. We are unloading the dishwasher, the telephone rings, we take the call, and when it is done we realize that we better turn on the oven and prepare the meatloaf, but the cat is hungry and wants to be fed….and the dishwasher is till sitting there with the door open! If that sounds familiar, there are many ways we can improve our attention focus and learn to – focus, start, shift, inhibit, and return to task.
One way to improve our attention focus is to use our inner voice (or just say it out loud of you are alone with only the cat to hear!) I am going to finish unloading the dishwasher as soon as I answer this call. Image yourself returning to the dishwasher and feeling good about finishing the job.
If your strength is more visual in nature, image yourself, unloading the dishwasher – put a one in front of that image, completing the phone call – two, feeding the cat – three, and starting dinner – 4. The plan will stay with you and you can relax, knowing you are capable of handling multiple tasks – in sequence!
Dr. Joan M. Smith, CA Licensed Educational Psychologist