Context switching and parenting

Every day when both kids are home from school, I have two small humans competing for my attention.

One has homework questions they need help with, occasional anxieties to be confronted and calmed, and a desire to know what the plan is for the rest of the night. The other needs a snack (but doesn’t know what kind), wants to watch something (but doesn’t know what), and either wants to pretend to be a Star Wars character or ask me 50,000 rapid fire questions about Star Wars.

And I started thinking about how, exactly, I wind up so tired right before dinner every weekday. Which lead me to remembering about partial attention and context switching.

In the case of continuous partial attention, we’re motivated by a desire not to miss anything.  We’re engaged in two activities that both demand cognition.  We’re talking on the phone and driving.  We’re writing an email and participating in a conference call.  We’re carrying on a conversation at dinner and texting under the table on the Blackberry or iPhone.

Continuous partial attention also describes a state in which attention is on a priority or primary task, while, at the same time, scanning for other people, activities, or opportunities, and replacing the primary task with something that seems, in this next moment, more important.  When we do this, we may have the feeling that our brains process multiple activities in parallel.  Researchers say that while we can rapidly shift between activities, our brains process serially.

Continuous partial attention is an always on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that creates an artificial sense of crisis. We are always in high alert.  We are demanding multiple cognitively complex actions from ourselves.  We are reaching to keep a top priority in focus, while, at the same time, scanning the periphery to see if we are missing other opportunities.  If we are, our very fickle attention shifts focus.  What’s ringing? Who is it?  How many emails? What’s on my list?  What time is it in Bangalore?

In this state of always-on crisis, our adrenalized “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in.  This is great when we’re being chased by tigers. How many of those 500 emails a day is a TIGER?  How many are flies? Is everything an emergency?

Linda Stone, Beyond Simple Multi-Tasking: Continuous Partial Attention

Something that came up again and again when I was researching my book on this topic, is that switching your attention — even if only for a minute or two — can significantly impede your cognitive function for a long time to follow.

More bluntly: context switches gunk up your brain.

Cal Newport, Deep Habits: The Danger of Pseudo-Depth

I want to be there for my kids, and actively engaged with them in the moment. But they also both want 100% of my attention at the same time right after school.

It’s a concentrated burst of continuous partial attention that may not last long, but definitely triggers that fight or flight response in me. I usually need a few minutes at some point to clear the brain fog.

But maybe by putting a name to it and looking more closely at how it’s happening, I can start to navigate better solutions.