If at some point last semester you asked yourself, “why am I so tired?”, you’re not alone. Emerging from pandemic lockdowns, many people have found reengaging with the routines of in-person life to be more exhausting than before. Some of it may simply be that we became used to fewer interactions with others, and just need some time to build up our “social fitness” to its pre-pandemic levels. Or it may be due to unhelpful habits we developed during lockdown in areas like eating, drinking, and sleeping.
One of those habits—on the rise prior to COVID, and further exacerbated by it—is multitasking. That’s where we pay attention to more than one thing simultaneously. Or, more accurately, where we pretend to ourselves that we’re doing two things at once, when what we’re really doing—says the research—is switching rapidly between them.
The problem with multitasking is that this rapid switching depletes our cognitive reserves more quickly than if we focused on one thing at a time. Numerous studies have shown that multitasking makes us more fatigued, less productive, and less likely to remember what we’ve seen or heard. (See a summary from Forbes magazine in 2020.)
This is true for things we are actively doing, like writing an essay or buying something on our phone, as well as more passive input like TV, music, and podcasts. So if your idea of relaxing is “staring at the big screen while scrolling through my little screen so as to reward myself for staring at the medium screen all week” (Delia Cai, 2020), it may be contributing more to your fatigue than you think.
This is also true in lectures. If you weren’t already in the habit of multitasking on your phone or laptop prior to the era of the zoom lecture, you probably are now. (Don’t believe me? Just walk past any lecture room and look at the laptop screens.) Not only are you less likely to remember what you’re learning, you’re also adding to your level of cognitive fatigue. And longer term, you could even be shortening your attention span by training your brain to consume information in the “snackable” size of newer media like TikTok, with its frequent, immediate emotional rewards (Marci, 2022).
So if you’d like to make the most of your learning and reducing your fatigue this semester, think about reducing your multitasking—in your leisure time, as well as in class. Because the alternative, in a not-too-far-off dystopian future, may well be Andrew Slone and David Cohen trying to teach Psalter as a TikTok rap battle. (You might think you want that, but as a species we haven’t got the best track record of knowing what’s best for us.)
Sophie Leroy, “Why is it so hard to do my work? The challenge of attention residue when switching between work tasks,” Organizational Behaviour and Human Decision Processes 109, no. 2 (2009): 168-81.
Carl D. Marci, Rewired: Protecting your brain in the digital age (Harvard, 2022).
Cal Newport. Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world (Grand Central, 2016).
Ellen Rose, “Continuous Partial Attention: Reconsidering the role of online learning in the age of interruption,” Educational Technology 50, no.4 (2010): 41-46.