Friday, September 6, 2013

Divided Attention and Parents' Stress: Part 2

Last time, we let you know about the increased stress that results from “multitasking” or dividing your attention day after day. While we all spend a good part of our days doing two things at once (typing and listening to music for example), the stress comes in when we have two or more tasks that require first our attention and then, processing time. Things that you do so often that you literally do them “without thinking” like navigating around in your own house, don’t count. So, remembering, prioritizing, decision-making, negotiating, evaluating, and learning are all things done best one at a time. You may think that it doesn’t matter (don’t all parents tie shoes, read emails, and prioritize their days by rapidly switching app-like from one task to the next?) but all the processing power needed can leave you drained, making even mundane things seem difficult. No matter how hard you try, focusing and unfocusing on thoughts and tasks will leave some of them in the dust.  Over time, 18 hours a day of multitasking will take its toll on you and your relationships.

A Better Way

Having competing demands is normal and often out of our control, especially for parents! But we can decide how we handle those demands. Knowing that dividing your attention is stressful all by itself, you can take steps to minimize the need to divide your attention. You might think it is impossible given how little time you already have but focusing more often on one thing at a time will make you less stressed and more efficient.
Let’s do that morning again, this time actively working to focus on one thing at a time.

You know you have an important meeting and you find yourself thinking about it when you wake up. Because you know your kids will need your full attention, you take a few minutes to write down all the thoughts you have about the meeting on a notepad you always keep by your bed. You answer the texts you have received as best you can while letting your co-workers know that you will not be answering any more texts for 40 minutes (or however long you need). Your spouse asks you about adding the trip to the gardening shop to your errands and you ask that he or she send a text  reminding you to add it to the list you already have in your phone. You hear your preschooler wake up and you silence your phone before you walk in his room and start your morning routine. Because he has all of your attention (until the baby wakes a few minutes later) and you are following your normal morning routine, there is no tantrum, and you have a chance to pick out an outfit together while you talk about how many days are left before Halloween.  When you are ready to go (feeling calm but busy), you grab your notes and pick up your keys in the special dish set out for that purpose on the counter and head out the door. After you get both kids safely into the car, you stand outside your car for a moment and check your texts and messages, answering only the most urgent and letting your boss and your co-workers know that you are on your way (on time).
A fantasy? No. None of this is any harder than what you already do. The difference is that you chose to focus only on one thing at a time. You can so this by making 3 simple changes.

  1.  Proactively make multitasking unnecessary. Instead of quickly switching from one thing to another, consciously divide your time based on your immediate priorities. Let others know what you are doing and why. They can learn from your example. Remember, your full attention (even for a limited time) is a powerful way to help your children live happier and healthier lives.
  2. Whenever possible, don’t rely on your memory. Retrieving memories on the run will divide your attention. Instead, take notes, make lists, and ask for reminders.  Choose to keep the most important objects (like keys, purses, wallets, cellphones) and notes in the same place so that you won’t be distracted by wondering where they are.
  3. Follow routines whenever you can. Remember, things that you do so often that you don’t have to think about them require very little processing energy so you can focus on important things, like counting the days to Halloween. We’ve already shared a lot of reasons why routines are good for babies but routines can make life less stressful for you too!
None of these steps require any money or extra time. But taking them can make a big difference in your stress level and your life.

  1. Nebel, K et al. On the neural basis of focused and divided attention. Cognitive Brain Res 2005; 5: 760-776.
  2. Petrac DC et al. Differential relationship of recent self-reported stress and acute anxiety with divided attention performance. Stress 2009; 12: 313-319.
  3. Wetherell MA and Carter K. The multitasking framework: The effects of increasing workload on acute psychobiological stress reactivity. Stress Health 2013; epub, ahead of print.

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