The dark side of multitasking
In our busy lives, multitasking seems like an efficient way to get things done, but there is a cognitive cost to trying to do everything at once.
Have you ever been on the phone with your boss, simultaneously shovelling banana into your toddler’s mouth, while wildly gesturing for your pre-teens to stop pelting each other with cornflakes? I’m sure it’s not just me.
The concept of multitasking is a modern-day malady that has convinced us we can “do it all” … all at the same time. Parents often multitask out of sheer desperation — there isn’t enough time in the day to get everything done, so they double or even triple up on tasks. We’ve been conditioned to wear this level of busyness like a badge of honour; you might even say the ability to multitask is considered a skill, an efficient way of doing things in the 21st century, but it isn’t.
Reliance on multitasking often comes at a great cost, leading to frayed tempers, stress and eventual burnout. Some might argue it goes hand in hand with caring for children. While you’d love to sit and play Barbies with your offspring, the dog isn’t going to feed itself, and the clothes (sadly) won’t magically jump out of the washing machine and trot out to the clothesline.
Lyn Craig, a professor of sociology and social policy at the University of Melbourne, has studied multitasking in the context of gender differences. It will hardly come as a surprise to learn women do it far more often than men.
Craig says even when parents aren’t consciously doing two physical tasks at once, the very nature of parenting means you are multitasking — you’re responsible for the kids, while doing other chores. And that can be taxing on your brain. “You could be called on to take action at any moment; there is an extra mental load involved in the anticipation and readiness,” she says.
Multitasking means you don’t enjoy doing a task as much because you aren’t fully invested in it. It makes you less attentive, stifles creativity and increases the likelihood of mistakes.
If you’re time-poor (and what family these days isn’t), many think that by multitasking you can get jobs done in a speedy fashion. But according to Julia Irwin, honorary senior lecturer in psychology at the School of Psychological Sciences at Macquarie University, multitasking to get things done faster is a myth.
Our brains do not have the ability to do two things at the same time, she explains, so multitasking is in fact counterproductive. “We perform tasks in serial fashion; focus on one, then switch to the other”; you might have the impression you’re doing two things at once, but your brain has been duped. This is because of something called “psychological refractory period” — a few milliseconds gap each time you switch between tasks. Professor Irwin explains that because your mind has to swap tasks, during that brief interlude you have to re-immerse yourself, and the clock keeps ticking. “Multitasking actually takes longer to do two tasks than if you were to do one and then the other,” she says.
Conscious multitasking is one thing, but there are probably times you multitask where you may be completely unaware of what you’re doing. Tune in and you’ll probably catch yourself writing a grocery list at the same time as you stir the pasta sauce, while chatting on the phone to your mum. And while it might be OK to multitask occasionally, if you habitually fire off important work emails while refereeing a disagreement between your kids, you might have to rethink your boundaries.
Doing a single task, one thing at a time, allows you to be in the moment, to wholly focus. With your undivided attention, you’ll not only do a better job, you will get through your to-do list faster. Which means there’s more time to play with the kids, and enjoy some down time.
Increasing pressures, particularly for women, who are typically the main caregivers in a family, has led to a generation of frazzled mothers. Eliza Pike, accredited mental health social worker from Blackbird Counselling, says multitasking has become part of everyday life for women, and that’s leading to increased stress and often physical and mental exhaustion.
“Social media portrays ‘super’ women doing everything and doing it well. It’s an unrealistic standard women hold themselves to, and feeling like they’ve failed is a very common experience,” she says. “I’m passionate about sharing the mental and physical load for a family, and a lot of that can be done through practical planning with our partners,” she says.
Communicating with your partner and asking for what you need is key. Pike suggests sitting down and working out what the weekly tasks look like — then delegating, so the household is managed as a team. “Then if you have the capacity, outsource some tasks like online shopping or have someone come and care for your child for an hour,” she says.
Multitasking is synonymous with stress. And when we’re stressed, our cortisol levels go into overdrive. Pike says it sends a message to our brain that communicates we’re in danger, and we go into fight or flight mode. “Our brain doesn’t know if it’s a real or perceived threat: is there a tiger in front of us, or are we just feeling really stressed?” she says.
If you keep trying to juggle all those balls, you’ll not only eventually drop one, but you might make yourself sick in the process. Prolonged high cortisol levels can lead to physical ailments, including lifelong auto-immune conditions.
If you’re feeling highly stressed, stop and focus. Pike explains this allows you to engage your logical brain, so you’re not running on your “emotional brain”. She suggests using a grounding technique to make you aware of your surroundings and bring you back to that present moment. Stop and think about “five things I can see, four things I can hear, three things I can touch, two things I can smell, and one thing I can taste,” she says.
Kids learn by modelling what their parents do. By multitasking, you’re teaching them that it’s okay to do multiple things at once. Pike says there is inherent danger in that. “We need to teach our kids how to live, not just how to exist — when multitasking, we’re not fully present,” she says.
Carrol Baker is a freelance journalist who writes for lifestyle and health magazines across Australia and New Zealand.