By Tiffany Markman, copywriter, editor and mom to an almost-three-year-old, who tries to balance her workaholism with cuddles, books, caffeine & reining in her intrinsic kugelry. Follow her on twitter.
As a mom, I’m always juggling multiple balls. Stress ball. Stabiliser ball. Beach ball. Tennis ball. Ha ha. But seriously, I can’t think of any time in my life that’s required more intensive tackling of several simultaneous tasks. The problem is, it doesn’t make my day easier or the quality of my output better. It just makes me tense.
And that could be why the newest thinking is that multi-tasking is a weakness, not a strength. Especially for moms.
Let’s start with the word itself. The phrase ‘multi-tasking’ appears to be a misnomer. Defined by Merriam Webster as “performing more than one task simultaneously”, multi-tasking is actually time-sharing: switching back and forth between tasks.
Like when you watch your kid play, check email, talk to your kid, tweet, put on movie for your kid, phone a friend… and then check email, tweet and keep half an eye on the kid/the movie, while talking to the friend. My average morning, from 6am.
Guess what? Rather than increasing my productivity, the above task-switching makes me feel burned out, stretches the length of my workday by about two hours on each end – morning and evening – and annoys my kid. I’m also guilty of:
- Eating in front of the TV
- Checking email at red robots
- Working during a pedicure
- Tweeting in the bath
- Lunching at my office desk
How about you?
Unveiling the evidence
Check this out: Called “Gauging Your Distraction”, it’s an interactive game, designed by The New York Times in consultation with experts from the Universities of Utah and Michigan, that illustrates the inconsistency between our expectation of multi-tasking and the reality. Summary: SMS while driving and you’ll crash.
Your brain is not designed to do more than one thing at a time, so it toggles from task to task. When you drive while talking on the phone, for example, your brain can use its resources to drive or talk, not both. Scans show that when you talk on the phone, there’s limited activation of your visual brain, so you’re driving without really watching. This is how you end up in places without knowing how you got there. (Or dead.)
Single-tasking – the goal
Single-tasking is doing one thing until it’s completed, after which you move on to another task. Sound like a waste of time? Maybe. But the truth is, when you single-task, you’re more productive, more efficient and quicker at the task in question:
1. Whatever you’re doing, make it your single Most Important Task (MIT). Let’s say you’re playing with your child. Don’t do anything else until that MIT is done.
2. When you’re doing an MIT, reject all other distractions. Close (not minimise – close!) your email inbox. Put your phone on silent (not vibrate – silent!). Focus on the one task, with all of your attention, without worrying about other stuff.
3. Be conscious. When you start doing something, become aware that you’re starting it. As you do it, become aware of really doing it and of the urge to switch to something else. Really commit yourself to that task, whatever it is.
4. If other things demand attention while you’re playing, note them in whatever ‘capture system’ works for you: diary, notepad, app. Then get back to playing.
5. Sometimes an interruption is so urgent you can’t put it off til later. Fair enough. But be clear in defining a crisis. And postpone those that don’t qualify.