When was the last time you did ONE thing? Can you even remember? Most of us – especially mums – are constantly doing everything simultaneously, simply because there is So. Much. To. Do. We feel that to be productive we have to be answering emails, cooking dinner, talking to the kids and cleaning the house at the same time or it simply won’t all get done.
But current research shows that there are definite costs to multi-tasking. First off, it’s not really multi-tasking. You may feel that you are doing it all at once, but in reality you’re “switch tasking” or “serial tasking.” That means that you are shifting gears between tasks and actually losing time and focus each time you do. You waste energy because you have to remember what you were doing and what you wanted to do next, incurring “switching costs.” The American Psychological Association’s research says this can add up to a task taking 40% longer.
It’s also more stressful. And you never really get in the zone for any activity! Plus, multi-tasking requires a lot of working memory – think of it as temporary brain storage – which takes away from our ability to think creatively because essentially there’s no more room to work.
Good news: there ARE areas where you can background task. This isn’t the same as serial/multi-tasking. Background tasking means you do two activities, but only one requires mental engagement. The other is entirely automatic and routine, and/or uses completely different brain processing - like listening to music and folding laundry.
This means that you can divide and conquer, combining background tasking with single tasking to get everything done more efficiently, while also maintaining your sanity and the quality of your relationships. If, for example, your me-time today is going to be reading a book, then don’t try and multi-task with something else. You simply won’t get much out of your down time because it won’t truly be your time. And ask yourself: can you really listen to your kids or spouse while writing an email? No. You can put the washing on, boil the kettle and listen to the news, though! Place the line between the things that you do that make you feel fulfilled or require true concentration, and simple household tasks.
Here are a few simple ideas to help you get there:
1. Make a list of your top priorities for the day. Try to keep the big ones down to a top three that you choose to focus on exclusively while doing them.
2. Use routine to your advantage. If the household runs on a particular schedule that doesn’t require constant thought, it frees up whole sections of your brain!
3. Ask for and accept help from others. Find ways for your spouse and kids to pitch in, even in simple tasks. Everything that comes off your plate is a win.
4. Separate out activities best done while kids are asleep. This might be tasks that require concentration, or give you the most pleasure when you can focus on them.
5. Practise mindfulness. Especially with things that delight you. You’ll get more out of every moment of me-time if you’re truly present for it.