“To do two things at once is to do neither.”-Publilius Syrus

Have you ever found yourself trying to study while talking to a friend? Or are you guilty of texting while trying to maintain an in-person conversation? How about trying to listen to a podcast while doing laundry. If you answered yes, then you are among the millions of people who continue to try to use multitasking to “kill two birds with one stone.” Here’s some advice from science: stop!

Earl Miller – the Picower professor of neuroscience at MIT —explains that when you “multi-task, all you’re doing is, “shifting our focus from one thing to the next with astonishing speed” so that “you think you're actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time, but you're actually not." Basically, multitasking is switching back and forth between activities quickly with neither getting the attention it deserves.

During adolescence, the brain is continuing to develop, especially in the pre-frontal cortex. This region of the brain is also the area that springs into action when you need to pay attention and carry out a task. The human brain can’t equally focus on two high-functioning activities at once. The pre-frontal cortex is part of the brain’s motivational system and helps to focus your attention on a specific goal. If you’re overwhelming your mind with more than one task, then you are less likely to complete the work accurately, and you will be less motivated throughout the process.

Study after study have shown that attempting to multitask hurts performance and has other detrimental effects on our ultimate goals. Research conducted at Stanford University found that multitasking is less productive than doing a single thing at a time. Stanford researchers also concluded that people who are regularly bombarded with multiple streams of information cannot pay attention, recall information, or switch from one task to another as well as those who complete one at a time. Multitasking has even been shown to have long-term detrimental effects on our brains! Researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (such as texting while watching TV) to MRI scans of their brains. They found that high multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control.

In academic competitions, multitasking is often expected of student teams. Coaches want their students to research, learn, create, and tackle multiple aspects of their project at oncebecause we want them to be the best they can be. As a coach, you must fight this temptation to ask your students to do it all. Instead of encouraging multitasking to prepare for your competitions, try these three simple strategies for how coaches can better guide their students in academic competitions.


  1. Keep a Visible To-Do List.

The need to multitask often comes from the fear of not having enough time. Understanding individual steps required to get you to larger goals can help setup your team well from the start, and ensure no one feels pressed for time. Set aside time for separate tasks like project planning or research. A well-organized plan at the front will help ensure that no one has to write a proposal, analyze, and build a model all at once.

The best way to stay on track with your plan – and to keep your team members on track – is to keep a visible “to do” list out for everyone to see. Map out the overall objective and then set smaller goals to achieve along the way, and have one student responsible for each task on the list. This process will make each task more meaningful. While the ‘big picture’ is important, coaches should emphasize the importance of focusing on one task, so that students aren’t trying to jump ahead to another task simultaneously. When you have a complete to-do list for your team, post it on the wall for everyone to see so they can hold one another accountable!


  1. Require “device-free” time.

It’s nice to think that you can flip between a conversation and the information you’re reading on your screen, and give each act your full attention. This is not the case. While many competitions require good online research to succeed, the devices used can often hinder learning and promote multitasking. Instead, have discussions first in a “device-free” session, and use that time to map out what you need to research. Then setup timed research sessions where devices are allowed but specifically for the research tasks laid  out. This will help students avoid going back and forth between their conversations and their screens and will keep them focused.


  1. Setup One-on-one Discussion Sessions

Coaches and students should have an open dialogue where each party feels comfortable in discussing every aspect of the project, including feelings. Students should feel like they could express when they are feeling overwhelmed with the tasks set for them. Likewise, coaches should be mindful of the tasks they are assigning students and set realistic expectations. In addition to being educational competitors, students also have their academic, athletic or creative, social life, and a regular sleep schedule to maintain. Making sure that as a coach, you stay up on how all of your team members are doing with the tasks assigned will go miles when you get closer to your deadlines. On a regular basis, make sure you take time to have a one-on-one discussion with each member of your team so they feel like they can express any concerns and know their needs are being heard.


If you can adopt these 3 strategies for your academic competitions you can help eliminate the desire to try and multitask from your students. Setup a system that encourages undivided attention on key components and your teams will be prepared to go far in any challenge!