Multi-Tasking May Not Be As Productive As It Feels

by Elaine Roth
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and nadia_bormotova/Getty

As I open the document to start on this essay, I’m supervising my eight-year-old who is working on his summer review math problems (yes, I’m “that” mom, but distance learning threw me for a loop, and I’m trying to make up for that over the summer), I’m texting a friend who is worried about the realities of distance learning, I’m keeping an eye on the pot simmering on the stove, and I’m listening for the chime of the dryer signifying that the load of laundry I threw in has finished.

I am a proud, self-proclaimed multi-tasker. As a solo parent, I have to be. How else can I possibly do all the things that need to be done? As it is, I’m doing all the things I listed above, and still didn’t get around to calling the plumber or returning the emails that keep getting pushed to that “do-tomorrow” list.

But also, I’ve re-read the same sentence a few dozen times in an effort to get this essay going. The clothes currently drying had been sitting in the washer, forgotten about, for more than a few hours. The dinner cooking on the stove was supposed to have been for yesterday, but I got distracted, ran out of time to throw the ingredients together, and ordered in instead.

So, I’m a proud, self-proclaimed multi-tasker, and I’m half unfocused and disorganized at all times. If I’m giving myself a little grace, I could say: it’s a pandemic and I’m solo parenting through it. But, to be honest, I’ve been half unfocused and disorganized for a long time.

Which is fine—the laundry can sit for a few extra hours, and the ingredients for dinner didn’t spoil in one day, and being half-unfocused isn’t that bad (although the plumber actually should have been called but that’s a story for another day.) Maybe that’s just life in the twenty-first century.

Or maybe I’m trying to do too much all at once. Maybe, in an effort to multi-task in order to save time, I’m wasting precious minutes.

A study from the American Psychological Association suggests that rather than making us more productive, multi-tasking, or more accurately task-switching (because we’re actually just jumping from task to task rather than doing tasks simultaneously) coupled with distractions caused by technology can cost up to 40% of someone’s productive time.

40%! That means nearly half of our productive time could be lost to the in-between. Or, more accurately, nearly half of our productive time is spent on (wasted on?) the time it takes to switch between tasks, also called the cost of switching, or switch costs.

There are two parts to the switch cost—“one attributable to the time taken to adjust the mental control settings (which can be done in advance if there is time), and another part due to competition due to carry-over of the control settings from the previous trial (apparently immune to preparation).” Essentially, the switch cost is the time it takes to adjust from one task to another, and the time it takes to reset your brain from one set of rules to another set.

What does that mean in mom-life terms? The switch cost is the time it takes for my brain to adjust from setting the water to boil for the mac n’ cheese to re-reading the last sentence I wrote, and switching from the rules of cooking to the rules of writing.

That mental switch might seem to happen instantly, (and I would swear that it does). But, in reality, it does take time—maybe even one tenth of a second. But those microscopic tenths of seconds add up, especially if you’re spending your whole day jumping from task to task…to task to task.

So if multi-tasking isn’t as productive as I’d always believed, what’s the alternative? The answer may be as simple as single tasking, or focusing on one thing at a time and being wholly and completely present in that singular task, completing it, and then moving on to the next task.

There may be some exceptions. Psychology Today reports that “The only exception that the research has uncovered is that if you are doing a physical task that you have done very very often and you are very good at, then you can do that physical task while you are doing a mental task. So if you are an adult and you have learned to walk then you can walk and talk at the same time.” For me, I’m fairly sure I could fold laundry while also cooking mac n’ cheese.

But in other situations, maybe it’s time to admit multi-tasking isn’t working out.

To finish writing this essay, I made sure the kids were fed and dressed and sent them to the playroom to play. (They are old enough where they don’t need me to facilitate play at all times.) I turned my phone onto airplane mode and enabled the “do not disturb” function. And then I wrote.

It certainly took some retraining. My mind wandered and I stood up to water my plants. I reached for my phone—though found the self-control not to disable “do not disturb.” But I wrote. And I completed my essay. And then I called the plumber.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve toiled under the belief that multi-tasking is synonymous with productivity. I’ve been sure that if I’m not doing a few dozen things at once, then I’m not doing all that I could do. Even though it seems almost counter-intuitive—to do only one thing when I could be doing four—maybe it’s finally time to re-examine that long held belief. Maybe it’s finally time to admit that multi-tasking isn’t working out for me as well as I’d like. And maybe, more than that, it’s time to admit productivity isn’t the measure of success I’d always believed it needed to be.

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