Episode 2: Head Space and the multitasking myth

According to popular stereotypes, women are good at multitasking, suggesting that men are not. However, research shows that, in general, people are not good at multitasking (Laloyaux et al, 2018): the human brain does not function optimally when called upon to multitask to the degree that we currently do (Levitin 2014). Levitin also outlines that the brain has an attention network and a daydreaming network. When one is on, the other is off. Attention evolved to keep us alive, whereas daydreaming allows for downtime, vital space for the brain to drift aimlessly. This is creative, but also restorative. Levitin refers to these two networks as ‘yin and yang’. Have you noticed that you day-dream less and less these days? Academic work demands multitasking, which keeps the attention network on alert and stifles daydreaming. Letting your mind wander will never be factored into workloads; it is the antithesis of ‘work’. And yet it isn’t. Day dreaming allows us to continue to function at a high level. It is essential.

We can approach the issue from a different angle. How often do we hear that people ‘can’t switch off’ if they work late into the evening? Stress to publish, put in yet another grant proposal, achieve TEF gold, improve NSS, PTES and PRES scores are all factors that can lead to poor sleep. However, sleep is a basic human right. Sleep is so basic that we have ignored its importance. In a recent Radio 4 interview, a representative of Public Health England reported that they were working to raise the profile of sleep as an urgent matter for concern. Lack of sleep has a significant impact on our physical and mental health and wellbeing. Although research does not yet conclusively show how much sleep we do need, it does show that poor/disrupted sleep is damaging. It also explodes the myth of those who claim they can function effectively on 3,4 or 5 hours sleep: they can’t (Wild et al, 2018).
According to the Times Higher, some surveys show academics putting in at least 60 hours a week (THES, 2016) whilst Mary Beard, a notable academic, recently tweeted that she works 100 hour a week (THES 2020). The increasing demands of our time in work means that research is becoming an activity regularly relegated to leisure time. Marking has always drifted into evening and weekend activity, but increasingly institutions are reducing the marking time, so this activity is now almost solely confined to what was our leisure time. Even more alarming we find that teaching preparation, innovation, preparation for meetings, can also fall into the evening and weekends. Yet our working days have not emptied. Somehow the working day has been completely taken over by administrative and other tasks. How often do you move directly from one meeting to the next? How often do you go without lunch? What happens when you suddenly have some space? Are you fit for purpose? Where is there space for us to daydream?

In an attempt to address growing calls for the recognition of the importance of staff mental health and wellbeing, universities organise mindfulness sessions, maybe run yoga, have a gym etc. This allows universities to say that they provide for staff mental health. The onus is on staff to take up these opportunities, so it is on staff to fix themselves. However, the main cause of poor mental health and poor wellbeing is a lack of time: ironically, workloads do not provide space for staff to participate in such initiatives.                                                             

Is there hope?

First of all, the growing awareness of mental health and wellbeing, of sleep deprivation and colleagues who actively try to stick to their working hours, keeping their evenings and weekends for other activities (See THES 2020) are all positive signs, but workloads are not going to recognise daydreaming/sleep any time soon, so we must create space.

  • Switch off the ‘ping’ notification that tells you that you have new mail.
  • Set time aside to respond to emails, but do not feel that you have to answer immediately.
  • Avoid thanking people for getting back to you immediately, as this reinforces the need for them to be on-line 24-7.
  • Devise a routine and stick to it.
  • If your week is fluid, the routine should be flexible but have a set number of slots which are non-negotiable.
  • Consider mindfulness. This is all about focus and research shows that mindfulness has very real health benefits.

Finally, why should we do this? Daydreaming and good sleep result in greater creativity, better health both physically and mentally. All this can be done by taking back space and stopping the pretence that you can multitask, and you can do it 24/7.

Click here for Episode 1


Conor J Wild, Emily S Nichols, Michael E Battista, Bobby Stojanoski, Adrian M Owen, Dissociable effects of self-reported daily sleep duration on high-level cognitive abilities, Sleep, Volume 41, Issue 12, December 2018, zsy182, https://doi.org/10.1093/sleep/zsy182
Hirnstein, M., Larøi, F. & Laloyaux, J. No sex difference in an everyday multitasking paradigm. Psychological Research 83, 286–296 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00426-018-1045-0
Levitin, G. (2004), Protection Survivability Importance in Systems with Multilevel Protection. Qual. Reliab. Engng. Int., 20: 727-738. doi:10.1002/qre.592
‘How many hours a week should academics work?’ Times Higher, 14.01.2016, accessed 2.3.2020 https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/how-many-hours-week-should-academics-work
“Should you be working 100 hours a week?” Times Higher, 20.2.2020, Issue No 2447, p32-39.


Jo Peat is Head of Educational Development at Roehampton University
Judith Broadbent is Principal Lecturer and Learning and Teaching Lead in the Department of Media, Culture and Language at Roehampton
Clare Gormley is an Academic Developer with the DCU Teaching Enhancement Unit

3 thoughts on “Episode 2: Head Space and the multitasking myth

  1. I read Levitin as being Daniel Levitin until I checked the ref list. Daniel Levitin is a cognitive neuroscientist (he has written a great book about music and the brain – I’m looking forward to reading his latest ‘How to age well’ a Christmas present!) who notes that the brain and multitasking are not actually what is taking place. It is in fact attention switching and each attention switch has a cognitive cost.
    There is an irony in taking time for mindfulness when we are time poor. I would stress that being mindful is not a solution to allow great productivity at work (although it may do this) it should be something one does for oneself because one wants to. The line above “staff to fix themselves” is one to consider. We are not the problem, although working excess hours clearly is.
    Is this a potential solution:
    No idea how it works but it sure sounds nice!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Brilliant posts. Thanks Jo, Judith and Clare.

    And thanks Peter. By coincidence, I finished Daniel Levitin’s book on music just recently.

    Rather than single-tasking and multi-tasking, a richer dichotomy for me has been between monochromic and polychromic time frames (from the work of E H Hall). This seems to translate well into teaching environments (Lea et al 2003). My feeling – for many years now – has been that management and admin fits well into a monochromic time frame – essentially clock time – where each task fits into a neat `one at a time ‘schedule and each minute is experienced much the same as any other, and things neatly stop when the home bell rings.

    Whereas, polychromic time is the richer and messier experience of time which typifies `real’ (not audited) teaching environments, where many thoughts, avenues and tasks all impinge at any moment, which require balancing. Teachers learn, naturally, to deal with this – it comes with the territory.

    What doesn’t come with the territory is the imposition of monochromic time frames onto a polychromic world; as if teaching could be treated like a series of technical and administrative tasks. The link with the current audit cultures, I hope, is an obvious one. Teachers (and researchers for that matter) are increasingly being asked to account for their time as if it was a linear series of tasks, which is why – I believe – it’s a silly question to ask how many hours an academic works a week, because it treats each minute as the same as the next.

    I might be working solidly for one hour – on the clock – preparing for a session, but in the middle of the night I might – just for a fleeting moment – have a brilliant idea. The latter is likely to be a much richer experience and worth, possibly, a 100 hours of clock time. I think this dovetails nicely with the idea of day dreaming, because the experience of time when one is dreaming is more like that of the famous Dali painting, and only a philistine bean counter would seek to audit it. Unfortunately, there seem to be a lot of these types wandering the corridors of our universities and colleges these days.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Episode 3: Time to Refocus | thesedablog

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