The myth of multitasking

I did the school drop-off this morning. I left my phone in the car, and walked her down the drive, holding her hand. We talked about sharks, and then we talked about an iPad game she liked. At the classroom door, I reminded her we have a ‘one kiss, one hug’ policy (she’s a clinger). I relented and we had 2 kisses and 2 hugs. Then I went back to my car.

There were 2 messages on my phone. The first was someone I was in the midst of making an appointment with. A slightly snippy “well, you haven’t answered your phone, so you are going to have to call me back”. Yep, got that. The second was my husband. “Why haven’t you answered your phone, we need milk!”


On the way home, I dropped into the supermarket for a few essentials. I left my phone in the car. Standing beside the bananas was a woman talking on her phone, earpiece in. She was having a very animated instructional session where she told someone what to do. There was a lot of gesticulating, staring blankly into the distance, stopping and starting of conversation. I couldn’t get a word in to say ‘excuse me’ so I did a wonderful contortionist bend, and yay, got my bananas! As I left 15 minutes later, she was still standing there. Still talking.

Later that afternoon a friend called for some advice. I went into ‘serious advice-giving mode’ and focused on the call. 5 minutes in, my 12 year old son appeared and mouthed words at me, miming some sort of dance that looked like a dog. I covered the mouthpiece, and hissed “yes, you do it” (meaning, you can feed the dog, because that’s obviously what he was asking). I finished the call, and got on with preparing dinner. My phone rang again, it was the vet “you forgot to come and pick up your dog, and we closed 20 minutes ago, could you please come immediately?”. Oh no. That was what the dog-dance was about. As I leapt into the car to get to the vet and beg some apologies, my son smirked “Well, you only need to pay attention when someone is speaking”.

One thing at a time mama!


I know all the productivity gurus go on about multitasking, but I am going with the one-thing-at-a-time approach. I can connect with my daughter at drop-off if I am not answering my phone at the same time. I am so quick at the supermarket if I am just doing that. If I am having a work call, I sit still in my car and focus. I don’t have to gesticulate, stop and start, lose track. It’s more efficient, more effective. And if I do this most of the time, then I will be relaxed and engaged the few times I am interrupted with something important. I will be open to the interruption, and not completely misinterpret the signals.

We are all guilty of talking while in the supermarket. Or checking email while talking to the kids. Or cooking dinner while talking on the phone. Or quickly checking incoming email beeps while working on a report.  Texting while walking. Scrolling through Facebook while watching TV (and then annoyingly keep asking your companion…ooohhh, what just happened there?)


The term multitasking didn’t exist until computers were invented. The phrase came about to describe a computer’s ability to run 2 programmes simultaneously. IBM were the first to use the phrase, in 1965. Since then it has become part of our language, and part of our expectation of ourselves.


But you miss what is going on around you. A study measured students walking across a campus square while talking on the phone. 75% of them did NOT notice a clown riding a unicycle nearby. Stuff isn’t registering like it should.

It is the exact opposite of mindfulness.

The science is unequivocal. When trying to do more than one thing at a time, it takes longer, and you make more errors.

And without realising, you are elevating your stress levels.

And it is not even true multitasking. You are not a computer and your brain can not run 2 programmes simultaneously. You are in fact, switching quickly back and forward between the 2 tasks. You keep changing gears, and never get ‘in the zone’ on either task.

Some people always listen to stuff (music or podcasts) while they run, or drive, or shower. They see it as transforming dead time to productive time. Which is a nice idea, but then you lose that creative space for your brain to wander. Which is where your best ideas come from! If you brain is full for 16 hours a day with a constant stream of information, data, comments, activities, conversations, distractions, then you never really process anything that you have taken in. You never have that Aha! moment as it all falls together and you suddenly see the big picture.

And then there is continuous partial attention, which involves skimming information just to pick out the most important parts. This is what your spouse is doing when they check their phone while talking to you. They might be able to repeat the last thing you said, but they have no idea what you are really meaning. It is the cause of many arguments among couples and it hurts relationships.


So what does this mean in a practical sense? For me, it looks like the following

  • If it is connection time with the kids (and drop-offs and pick-ups are important to me) then the phone stays in the car.
  • If I am working on a job at my desk, writing for example, then ‘Out of office’ is switched on to my emails. Then nobody expects an immediate response. It sets an expectation that I will get back to them tomorrow. Not in the next 5 minutes.
  • I try to work in batches. Send all my text messages once a day. Answer all my emails at once. Pay my bills at the same time. Focus on cooking, while its cooking time. Get in the groove, do things properly, quickly and well.
  • Once the kids are in the house (I work from home), my working day is over. I focus on them, and what the family is doing.
  • Sometimes I listen to podcasts while I exercise. But sometimes I just let myself daydream.
  • I’m buying an alarm clock, so my phone is not beside my bed.
  • I have turned off that annoying pop-up that comes on your computer screen letting you know a new email has arrived.
  • Schedule a time each day for mindlessly scrolling through social media (for me, it while I sit in the dark while my fearful daughter falls asleep)
  • I don’t answer my phone if I can see that it will interrupt what I am doing.
  • Each day I set my intention for what is important to me, and what do I want to get done. And if connecting with people is important to me, so I leave room for it.


What about you?


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