The myth of multitasking


If you feel like you have so much to do but never have enough time then this week’s blog is for you.

A few weeks ago I was standing in my kitchen and had to grasp the side of the kitchen work surface to steady myself.  My head was spinning and I felt dizzy to the point I was worried I’d fall over.  

I’d been sat feeding my new baby whilst reading emails on my phone.  As I was contemplating a response to one of my emails I opened my social media accounts to scroll through.  Whilst doing this a WhatsApp message pinged and I opened the app to read it.   The doorbell then went and I got up to answer the door to a delivery driver.  As I walked back into the kitchen I realised the washing machine had finished its cycle.  I put my daughter down in her moses basket to move the washing into the tumble dryer.  But before I could get to the washing my phone pinged again with another message.

As I grabbed my phone to look at the message an overwhelming sense of dizziness struck me.   I initially thought that I might be coming down with an illness.  But the truth was actually more worrying and scary for me.  My dizziness was being caused by my constant and frantic multitasking. 

Have you ever heard the phrase “If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it. The more things you do, the more you can do”? 

Over the years I’ve heard this phrase change into “If you want something done, give it to a working mum!”.  Us women have become famous for being good at multitasking.  Most working mothers I speak to can relate to this – can you?

Some say that it’s in our genes; back in the cavemen days we had to run the show whilst the men were off hunting.  And some say that it’s a learnt behaviour by necessity.

Whatever the reason raising children, whilst holding down a job and running a house means that most of us have had to embrace the superwoman multitasking persona.  Performing endless tasks and chores simultaneously all day long has become an everyday occurrence for many women.

Not only that, many of us have worn our superwoman multitasking approach as a badge of honour.   That badge of being able to juggle numerous balls at the same time becomes evidence of our busyness, efficiency and capability.

Even if we don’t buy into the concept of it being a badge of honour, many of us may hold the belief that multitasking is the only way to deal with the competing demands that we face each and every day.  How else can we possibly do everything that we need to do – right?

Whilst we may have convinced ourselves that we’re more than capable of doing more than one thing at the same time, the evidence indicates that multitasking is counterproductive. 

Tony Schwartz shares the research of David Meyer in the book ‘The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working’.  Meyer is a leading researcher in the field of Brain,Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan and he’s convinced that there aren’t any advantages to multitasking.

“You’ll never be as good as if you just focussed on one thing at a time.  Period.  That’s the bottom line.”

A study that Meyer conducted in 2001 found that when we switch between tasks it takes 25% longer to complete them than to do the tasks sequentially, one at a time.  

The advances in neuroscience and brain imaging now tells us that, unlike computers, us humans are not designed to undertake tasks sequentially.   And the impact to us operating in this mode can have pretty negative consequences.  Not only do we become more unproductive, we become overloaded, we’re more distracted, make more mistakes, make poorer decisions and ultimately our quality of life is impacted.

That’s pretty damning evidence for multitasking isn’t it!

So it’s not surprising that I was feeling dizzy.  My constant flitting between different tasks and holding the residue from the previous task that I’d yet completed was causing me to spin in circles.  I was physically manifesting what my mind was doing – going around in circles of my never ending to-do-list.   Not only was I being constantly interrupted …my mind and thoughts were too.  Not to mention my phone!  A study by the research group dscout found that we touch our phones on average 2,617 times at day!

It was a strong wake up call for me to do what I know……to move from multi-tasking to mono-tasking.   

Mono tasking is the practice of focusing on one task and minimizing potential interruptions until the task is completed or a significant period of time has elapsed

By doing so I was able to reduce my overwhelm and become more productive whilst eliminating my dizziness!

Here are three simple tips to help move from multitasking to mono tasking:

  1. Identify your top three sources of external distraction – For most people email and social media will probably be in the top three.  Think about how you’re currently managing them.  How could you use them differently to reduce their distractions?  Turn off message notifications so you don’t get distracted by them flashing up or pinging on your devices.  Try to carve out specific time(s) in the day to check email and social media.
  2. Quieten the internal sources of distraction – The second source of distraction is internal – the chatter in our minds and our brains working at warp speed trying to process things simultaneously.  Quieting our mind is one way of gaining more control and focus.  Perhaps it might be capturing all the things that are whizzing around on a piece of paper so you can give yourself permission to stop overthinking.  Then deep breathing whilst focussing on our breath can really help.  As simple as it sounds this not only brings a calming focus, it actually helps flush out the stress hormones that multitasking often creates.
  3. Create meaningful focus – Once we are able to focus more effectively the next challenge is deciding where to focus our attention.  We need to define our priorities.  Each day prioritise the three most important items on your to-do-list.  No doubt there will be plenty more than three that feel like a priority.  But start with defining just three.  Then work sequentially through each in turn, with your phone on silent and a physical or metaphorical ‘do not disturb’ sign in place where possible.

These three simple (but not always easy to do) strategies have really helped me to slow down my multitasking superwoman persona.  I have to consciously work on doing these strategies as the lure of distractions and busyness is still real. Whilst it feels counterintuitive I really want to let go of the badge of honour of multitasking. 

I’d love to hear from you – can you relate to being a multi-tasker?  How do you stay focussed and productive as a busy working mum? 

Here’s to achieving more by doing less!



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