No joke. I’m starting to research information for this blog post whilst helping my 10 year old hang up his laundry to dry and keeping an eye on fish fingers and hash browns under the grill….yep, I’m multi-tasking, again! With my Mum hat on, I find myself multi-tasking all too frequently. Is it good or bad?
Headlines such as “Multi-tasking Mum proves she can do it all” grab our attention and multi-tasking can be seen to be worn as a badge of honour.
I run regular workshops on The 5 Gears which is a simple coaching tool to enable you to be more present and productive when there is never enough time. Gear 4 is Multi-tasking and I confirm that this is the most over-used gear out of the 5 and often the most difficult to get out of.
Research online indicates multi-tasking is predominately bad, but most advice is aimed at office workers where I can understand that multi-tasking can be detrimental to the quality and quantity of work completed and also negative on personal well-being, but is that true of a Mum who is holding down a job or running her own business and is also acting as CEO at home?
As a Mum who is at home after a long day at work, it’s still difficult to move from room to room without finding a job to do/picking something up/tripping over something which is out of place! It feels like it’s a necessity to multi-task sometimes.
Apparently only 2% of people can multi-task effectively, and it’s likely you and I are not one of them. If you are multi-tasking in order to be more productive, the effect is negative. It causes a loss of productivity.
Multi-tasking is really switch-tasking and that incurs switching and start-up costs. By concurrently working on tasks means you are having to refocus your brain back and forth between the tasks. The rapid variation between tasks and the effort of having to change mental focus causes stress. Stressed people make more errors.
We aren’t wired to focus on more than one thing at a time. Attempting to complete multiple tasks on your to do list will actually slow down your cognitive processing. It’s hard to organise your thoughts or filter out unnecessary information. Efficiency plummets. In a University College of London study, subjects who multi-tasked, while performing brain sensitive tasks, demonstrated IQ drops similar to people who are sleep deprived or smoke marijuana.
Multi-tasking can also be an addictive pattern of behaviour and therefore hard to stop. It programmes the brain to operate in this mode, creating a debilitating thinking habit which is permanent. When we multi-task we are blasted with a reward hormone called dopamine. It feels good, and even if we have planned to set aside time to delve in to a time consuming project, the pull of email and social media keeps us distracted. Researcher Zhen Wang discovered that people carrying out multiple things felt good about themselves but the results of the tasks they had to complete were no where as good as non-multi-taskers. Zhen’s research indicates that multi-tasking serves an emotional need, rather than a productivity need.
But what about background tasking? This is when you perform two activities concurrently but only one requires mental exertion. For example, listening to the radio whilst folding the laundry, listening to music whilst cooking or exercising. Background tasking can be beneficial. I like to use the time whilst one thing is happening, to do something else. One Mum I know does squats every morning whilst her breakfast smoothie is blitzing!
Talking with someone, however, requires your full attention. Have you experienced talking on the phone to someone when you are aware they’re not listening 100%? Their tone changes and they pause before they answer. If we are constantly distracted we are not giving our attention to the people who are most important in our lives, our family.
So, my conclusions are:
- It’s ok to practice background tasking but instead of multi-tasking, try creating schedules, habits and routines instead. Schedule in 1:1 time with your husband and children. I make sure I am not online once the children are home from school from 3.30pm to 7.30pm. This helps me to be available for them and not distracted when they need me. It gives them a chance to talk if they want to. I also make sure we have 1:1 time before bed and that’s often when they open up and appreciate my undivided attention.
- If possible, move some activities to when the children are asleep or before they wake up.
- Anticipate interruptions when you are at home. When you are trying to do something with children in the equation, expect to be interrupted and instead of resenting it, see it as an opportunity to connect.
- Practice chunking. This involves breaking your day up in to chunks and not reacting to constant interruptions. Group similar tasks together so that you can intentionally focus on them in one hit. The more chunks of time you can devote to specific tasks, the less switching and start-up moments you will have. Ensure you turn of all notifications and put your phone on silent.
- Practice the Pomodoro Technique and get things done in short bursts. This encourages you to focus on a task for 25 minutes, setting a timer, then give yourself a 2-5 minute break before working again for the next 25 mins.
In future I shall be more mindful about whether it’s appropriate and beneficial to choose to multi-task or not, rather than just ‘falling’ in to it and then realising things aren’t going smoothly. If I’m intentional about how I use my time then I am more likely to see an increase in my productivity and ensure I am fully present with those around me.