Feeling Frazzled and Forgetful? Blame “Media Multi-Tasking”

Double-screening may be the source of your sugar cravings too

Photo by Taras Shypka on Unsplash

People talk about the pandemic being a time to move slower, but you feel busier than ever. Back-to-back zoom calls, with no commute to break up the meetings and think about the conversation you just had. You go from an online parent-teacher conference to Q3 planning without so much as a potty break. At the end of the day, all you want to do is lie on the floor and eat the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups you hid in the back of the freezer last October. For those of us who work mostly online, we’ve had a year of inputting information with very little processing time. The result? We may not remember much of what we’ve accomplished.

You probably know there’s no such thing as “multi-tasking”; that doing multiple things all at once is really just rapidly moving between tasks. But perhaps you didn’t know that all that switching switching switching without a break burns through the glucose in our brains (thus the hankering for candy) and leaves us spent. Now there’s research into a specific area of this phenomenon: “media multitasking,” otherwise known as double (or triple) screening. Research published in Nature in October found that, “Heavier MMT is associated with worse episodic memory, in part, because of a greater propensity to suffer more-frequent or disruptive lapses of attention.” Scientific American summed up the study:

The research suggests that “media multitasking” — or engaging with multiple forms of digital or screen-based media simultaneously, whether they are television, texting or Instagram — may impair attention in young adults, worsening their ability to later recall specific situations or experiences.

I mean, yeah. Every parent knows this. In our house, we have a rule against double-screening, despite my son’s claims that he can follow the plot of All Creatures Great and Small (the show we’re currently watching as a family) while simultaneously playing Football Manager (his preferred screen-relaxation activity). But it’s not just teens or young adults who struggle with MMT. I would argue that “media multitasking” is contributing to the anger management problem mothers are having, as described by Jennifer Senior recently described in the New York Times:

We can’t find flow — not while working, caregiving, cooking, cleaning or even watching reruns of bad TV — because the demands of the kids, the house, the job (if we’re fortunate enough to still have one) collide with one another, subdividing our days into staccato pulses of two-minute activities before we switch to something else. It’s all disruption all the time. Such an arrangement is guaranteed to create short fuses. And that’s exactly what we’re hearing about as the pandemic reaches its anniversary: Mothers are losing it.

When the pandemic first started, I was totally frazzled. I didn’t know how to help my daughter with Zoom school and be in an online meeting myself at the same time without sweating through my t-shirt. I decided to revisit an article from 2016 about managing our attention, for which I was interviewed about a public radio research project on managing information overload:

“It’s a digital literacy skill,” said Manoush Zomorodi, the host and managing editor of WNYC Studios’ “Note to Self” podcast, which recently offered a weeklong interactive series called Infomagical, addressing the effects of information overload. “Our gadgets and all the things we look at on them are designed to not let us single-task. We weren’t talking about this before because we simply weren’t as distracted.” Ms. Zomorodi prefers the term “single-tasking”: “ ‘Monotasking’ seemed boring to me. It sounds like ‘monotonous.’ ”

I stand by that quote. And reminding myself of how soothing single-tasking is has really helped. I’ve been losing it far less frequently. Yes, I have kids old enough to brush their own teeth and figure out how to use Zoom, GoogleClassroom, and every other possible remote school platform. I also have a husband who does his fair share around the house, and colleagues who accept that a puppy or 10-year-old girl may join our morning meeting. Privileged? Yes. But I’ve also decided to stay (mostly) true to focusing on one thing at a time.

If I’m waiting for the puppy to pee, that’s all I’m doing. Because I know if I start answering an email and then she poops and I’m looking for a poop bag and I accidentally hit send on a half-drafted email, I will be pissed off. And I’ll come inside and be grouchy at the dinner table with my children. I’d rather hide in the bathroom later and calmly write a coherent message in peace. I also installed a white board in our living room (found in a nearby dumpster) where I track our lives, much like the editorial calendar that my NPR team and I use to track our weekly episode production. The show I host, TED Radio Hour, has an amazingly organized showrunner who keeps us focused on our deadlines. I’m the showrunner for my family’s life. As a mother, I’ve accepted that. So I’ve assigned each family member a color and list their daily schedule and tasks for all to see. Knowing what is happening when (without having to check yet another screen) reduces the cognitive load for all of us. And we’re so much nicer and less forgetful for it.

I’m writing here every week. Please follow me and tell me things. To hang out even more, find me on Twitter, sign up for my newsletter, and listen to NPR’s TED Radio Hour.

Journalist, mom, Swiss-Persian New Yorker. Host of @NPR’s @TEDRadioHour + @ZigZagPod. Author of Bored+Brilliant. Media Entrepreneur-ish. ManoushZ.com/newsletter

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