A parent’s to-do list is truly neverending. Call the pediatrician, fold the laundry, and find reliable child care while the sitter is on vacation are examples of the dozens of tasks our brains try to focus on each day. So, in order to cross each item off as quickly as possible, we attempt to multitask. But is it really working? If doing more than one thing at a time feels taxing—especially while also trying to parent effectively—you’re not alone.
What is Multitasking?
The definition of multitasking is simple (and something many parents pride themselves on being able to do): working on more than one task at a time. Think about your typical day. How many different tasks are you doing simultaneously? You may find yourself listening to a podcast while driving to soccer practice. Or, have you ever tried to answer emails on your phone while (half) listening to your child tell you about the art project they did at school?
While you’d like to believe you’re being a supermom or dad by getting so much accomplished, neuropsychologist Dr. Cynthia Kabu, PhD says we’re actually not meant to multi-task. “When we think we’re multitasking, most often we aren’t really doing two things at once, but instead, we’re doing individual actions in rapid succession or task-switching.”
Is Multitasking a Myth?
Dr. Kabu isn’t the only one to recognize that our brains can’t focus on more than one thing concurrently. And even when we try extra hard to do so, we’re not able to switch from task to task efficiently. Productivity expert and author of Time Management from the Inside Out, Julie Morgenstern, says that, “It takes four times longer to recognize new things.” That means you’re not saving yourself any time when you rapidly switch from task to task—aka multitask. “We’re actually getting less done in the process,” Morgenstern adds. Study after study is showing that multitasking isn’t as effective as we once thought.
All of this comes as somewhat of a relief to many parents who no longer have to feel guilty if they’re not accomplishing 12 things at once. Consider the mental toll multitasking has taken on parents over the last year alone. Knowing that it’s smarter to center your attention on one responsibility before moving to the next can be freeing, ultimately lightening that mental load.
How Can Parents Be Productive Without Multitasking?
Although relieving, it can also be frustrating when you want to be able to check multiple items off of that to-do list at once. So, how can parents still get it all done without resorting to ineffective multitasking? This is where time management becomes important. If you can remain focused on the task at hand, and not switch contexts over and over, your brain doesn’t feel as fatigued. You also get more done, with better quality, in less time. Who doesn’t want that?
Here are two ways to manage your time more effectively—no multitasking required:
The Big 3
Make a commitment to yourself to focus on three tasks each day and three bigger responsibilities to get through every week. Once they’re finished, you’ll feel accomplished. And that long to-do list won’t feel as daunting.
The Pomodoro method
Serving as a realistic and easy way to manage your time, the Pomodoro technique suggests setting a timer for 25 minutes. During that block, you’re solely focused on one priority. At the buzzer, take a five-minute break and start again. What you can get finished in just a few Pomodoro rounds is pretty remarkable.
Having to shift contexts throughout the day can be draining. Although there are times we can’t avoid it as busy parents, there are certainly opportunities to ditch multitasking and let one single item hold your attention. Try comparing how you feel when you multitask vs. using one of the above time management tools. Stick with whichever option keeps you more engaged, focused, and efficient. Your mental health will thank you!