As a parent, there’s pretty much no way that you can avoid trying to do several things at once. If you have one kid, you’re doing things around the house or out on errands and you have to keep adjusting what you’re doing to meet the needs of your kiddo. If you have two or more kids you’re always juggling between the kids and whatever you were trying to do. From the day that you became a parent, you became a forced multitasker.
When the tasks are simple, mindless, routine things it’s not so bad. You can usually do a passable job at the two or more things you’re trying to accomplish. But when the tasks get more complex…or your kids get more demanding…things start to break down. Not in the little cracks-in-the-corners kind of way, but rather the walls-are-crashing-down-NOW kind of way. It’s startling how quickly things can fall apart and how completely they do!
When I started thinking about the idea of whether multitasking was good, bad, or neutral I did some research on the subject. I had a really hard time finding anything that discussed parenting and multitasking. Every article I found was about multitasking at work. The studies that were referenced focused on job performance and multitasking. Even the bloggers who wrote about it were exclusively discussing the office environment.
But if you’re a parent, most of the theories those folks talk about are worthless. It would be great to be able to focus on a single task without interruption. But let’s face it…how many times are little fingers pressed under the bathroom door when you’re trying to pee? Or worse, you hear all heck breaking loose between two of your kids while you’re in there and you have to parent-through-the-door (also known as yelling). We don’t get a moment’s peace. Even when the kids are young and they go down for a nap, don’t we try to do several things at once before our little charges awaken? I know that’s how it is for me.
I mean, multitasking is a way of life as a parent. I’m sitting here writing this post, boiling eggs, and have responsibility for Hectic Grandson. Sure, he’s playing nicely by himself just a few feet away…but I can’t concentrate 100% on this post because he could need me at any second. Today we haven’t had as much climbing and jumping…but yesterday he discovered that the end tables were the perfect height for daredevil attempts at flight. In situations like that there is no rest…you’re always on duty.
Researchers tell us that multitasking takes a pretty significant toll on our productivity. It’s bad enough that we’re sleep-deprived and subsisting on gummy worms and Cheez-Its, now we’re also facing a degradation in our productivity from multitasking? It just doesn’t seem fair.
But here are the facts:
- Several sources said that it takes almost 15 minutes to get into a state of flow after switching tasks. That’s at least 15 minutes where you’re not as productive as you would’ve been if you hadn’t switched tasks (e.g. been interrupted).
- Dr. Edward Hallowell in his book CrazyBusy likens multitasking to playing tennis with two tennis balls. He goes so far as to say that our rampant multitasking causes folks to act as if they have the symptoms of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). He ought to know, he’s an expert in that area!
- A study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance indicates that more unfamiliar you are with a task, or the more complex it is, the time cost of switching back begins to escalate quickly. That is, a new or complex task will take a lot more time for you to get back into after jumping to something else.
So what the heck can we do about it? Is there any chance that we can diminish the negative effects of multitasking?
Aside from getting rid of the kids, throwing out your smart phone, and ridding yourself of all distractions on a permanent basis, there are a couple of things that you can do to make it easier for you to get things done.
- Try to break up your tasks into small units that can be accomplished quickly
- Let’s face it, as a parent you’re never going to have huge blocks of time to work on anything. But, if you can break a larger task into smaller ones, you might be able to finish all of a smaller task (or at least most of it). Then in your next window of opportunity you move on to the next bit.
- Turn off the notifications on your smart phone
- I’m not saying turn the entire thing off, but recognize that most of the times that your phone buzzes or beeps…it’s not an urgent matter. Seriously, do you really need to know that Aunt Bertha just posted another cat video on Facebook? The fewer times you’re interrupted by non-essential notifications, the better the chance that you can get something else done.
- Recognize that you’re going to have to switch tasks sometimes, but try to control as much of that as you can. Don’t set yourself up for failure from the start.
Since multitasking in one form another is going to plague us pretty much for the rest of our parenting lives, it’s better to try and deal with it than just fret and complain about how unproductive we are. Do what you can to minimize the number of things that you’re forced to work on at once.
And as Laura McClellan of The Productive Woman podcast says…”extend grace to yourself and go make your life matter”. Don’t sweat the fact that some days are going to be better than others. If today wasn’t exactly the way you wanted it to turn out, there’s always tomorrow!