You’ve probably heard about the dangers of multitasking. Apparently trying to do more than one thing at a time is worse for your productivity than staying up all night watching infomercials or smoking marijuana.
In one study, students took 40 percent longer to solve complicated math problems when they had to switch to other tasks. Another study showed that multitasking changes the way we learn and makes us less able to recall memories. If you’re about to click away from this article, because you’ve mastered the art of multitasking, a third study might make you think twice. It turns out heavy multitaskers are worse at doing numerous tasks than light multitaskers.
And the worst part? When we multitask, our bodies release stress hormones and adrenaline. We feel stressed, pressured, angry, and frustrated. One Australian doctor even blames multitasking for “epidemics of rage”.
Maybe you’ve heard that multitasking isn’t as hard for women as it is for men, that our brains are wired differently? Well research has debunked that as well. According to Josh Naish, a science writer at the Daily Mail, “The bulk of scientific investigation into the brain reveals no significant difference between the sexes. The widespread belief that women’s brains are naturally better at multi-tasking seems to be a myth.”
So you’re convinced? From now on, it’s all about focus. Doing one thing at a time. Paying attention.
Me too – except for one thing. I’m a parent, and I work at home. That means that I am doing at least two things every waking moment of every day. I am caretaking, i.e. reminding my three-year-old to look both ways before crossing the street, washing his hands, switching his shoes to the right feet, helping him get dressed (strangely this happens about 30 times a day), feeding him, entertaining him, helping him help me with something, etc… Meanwhile, I’m doing what needs to get done each day to keep our household and my business afloat.
Even when my son is napping or at a friend’s house, and I have some focused work time, I’m on alert, waiting for him to stir or wondering if I will get a phone call from his caretaker. Honestly I have a feeling that if parents took the multitasking research seriously and stopped, disaster would ensue.
So I like to take comfort from this bit of research on the maternal brain. At least in rats, the hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding reshape the female brain – increasing the size of neurons in some areas and building new structural pathways in others. “Some of these sites are involved in regulating maternal behaviors such as building nests, grooming young and protecting them from predators,” Scientific America reports. “Other affected regions, though, control memory, learning, and responses to fear and stress.” Surely our species is just as well-equipped for parenting, right?
That said, when I started working at home a couple of years ago, I had significant room for improvement in the area of focus. There was always so much to do, and I found myself not just doing one thing (caretaking) while trying to do another (checking my email). I tried to do many, many things at once. Too often I wandered around the house jumping from one task to the next, leaving everything in various stages of incompleteness.
When I recognized that, ahem, I was a multitasker, I imagined exciting solutions to my problem – a fancy smart phone app, some sort of color-coded charting system perhaps – until I stumbled onto the real solution. A simple, humble checklist.
That’s right, I wrote down everything I needed to get done each day. Then I forced myself to focus on one task, finish it, cross it off the list, and go to the next. I know, humans were most likely doing this on cave walls in hieroglyphics thousands of years ago. Here’s why – it works.
Now even when I don’t make a checklist, I take the checklist mentality into my day and force myself to do one thing at a time. Of course, I’m constantly fielding the inevitable distractions of parenting a small child – “I can’t find my bear book.” “Where are my buttons-on-the-legs pants?” “Do we have strawberries?” “I have to go potty.” – but I get loads more done and feel less frustrated.
Maybe you’re thinking that a checklist sounds kind of lame, low-tech … unglamorous. I know. But I’m not the only one singing its praises. Dr. Peter Provonost won the Macarthur Genius Award and was named one of Time Magazine‘s most influential people in 2008, because he found a way to radically decrease infection rates at his hospital, save lives, and cut millions of dollars in unnecessary expenses. His brilliant idea? He required doctors to use a checklist when inserting catheters.
So if you’re feeling harried and unsure of how to find your way out of the multitasking habit, the solution might be easier than you think. Try this: make a list and force yourself to actually use it.
Do you use checklists? Have you discovered other simple hacks for kicking the multitasking habit, or for juggle parenting with working? I’d love to hear about it.