Why does 2 hours of homework take 8 hours to finish!?!

My 8th grade son has a MacBook for school. It is required for all middle schoolers so he has had it now for 3 years. Since he is going to be using a computer in his future career I think it is OK that he has a head start although, to be fair,there is research to the contrary. Being able to type, find one's way around an excel spreadsheet, and create a PowerPoint presentation are skills that will help in school as well as work. This view was reinforced recently by my friend who teaches at a public school in the US. His students had to take a standardized assessment test. Unlike the tests I took as a kid with little circles and a number 2 pencil, these tests were administered via computers in the school computer lab. It certainly makes it easier to grade the tests but as several of his students were from poorer households, they had never used a mouse before. There were questions on the test that required the students to rotate drawings and drag items from one part of the screen to another. If your kid's entire experience with technology has been limited to swiping on a 4 inch screen, then he is going to be at a disadvantage when taking this test. The resulting low scores were not surprising. But I digress, this article is about distraction. For my son, the computer is both a boon and a constant distraction. He has become so adept at swiping between screens that I can no longer catch him when he is playing games instead of doing his homework. With those quick fingers he may have a career as a magician (or pickpocket!) ahead of him.

Aside from my frustration with his playing games when he should be doing his homework (we never played minesweeper or solitaire when we  were supposed to be working...) there is also the delay that occurs when humans switch between tasks. Unfortunately, that fraction of a second for the swipe on the touch pad is not the total time lost.

Multitasking is a hoax. There is enough research now to suggest that when we are multitasking, we are actually doing one task, then moving to another task rather than doing both simultaneously. In addition, there is a lag with each switch before we become productive again. According to this study, if my daughter has an hour of math homework and an hour of history homework, it could take her 2 hours and 10 minutes to complete IF she completes one subject before starting on the other. The 10 minute addition is the switching time her brain needs to adjust to the new subject and become productive. If she tries to do both, switching back and forth, each change could cost her another 10 minutes or more quickly adding up to a lot of wasted time. Now add in Facebook, Instagram, text messages, email, etc. In my son's case, 2 hours of homework unbelievably becomes 8 hours!

Based on this research, the kid's learning how to navigate a computer screen at the same time (not really the "same" time since there is no such thing as multitasking) they are taking a timed assessment test are always going to do worse than the kids who handle the mouse without thinking.

It is always difficult trying to teach my kids something that I have yet to master myself. Avoiding distractions and focusing on a task until it is completed is extremely difficult. Fast Company published a survey on workplace distractions back in 2011. The estimate of up to one lost hour per day due to these distractions seems likely to be higher in reality. I can only assume that the number of things competing for my attention has increased since then. So what can I do about my kids? The physical actions are easy enough, take away the iPhone, make him sit where I can see his computer screen, check on him every now and then (in a non-distracting way). But I also want them to have the discipline to stick to their work and the understanding of why they should not multitask when I am not around to look over their shoulders. Teaching by example and explaining how our brains work will hopefully do the trick. Perhaps when he is sitting at his desk in college and knows he has a long night ahead of him, he will remember Dad's explanation about the myth of multitasking. He will then turn off his phone, close whatever social media site is popular at the time, pick one subject to plow through, and finish his work in time to get a couple hours sleep.


  1. Larry,
    I like it. Let me know how you solve the problem with Nico.
    The Fast article I liked. One of the problems I always face with my clients is that they never have enough time to do the important things, like prevent errors, redesign their bad processes. I challenge them, bet with them, that I can find 25% waste in how they use their time. I never lose the bet.


Post a Comment