Stop Parental Multitasking — You're Not Actually Getting More Done

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
A mother talking on a mobile phone while holding her child with pacifier in his mouth
10'000 Hours/Getty

Job descriptions often include “able to multitask” as a desired skill for job applicants. It’s common to hear a person proudly announce that they’re a great multitasker. When we become parents, multitasking feels practically built into the job. Ever fed a baby while paying bills on your phone, or helped a kid with homework while doing dishes and cooking dinner?

Moms are the ultimate multitaskers!

And yet, experts are unanimous in their recommendation not to multitask — yes, even when it comes to the million tasks that come along with being a parent.

Are You Really Getting More Done When You Multitask?

Amber Trueblood, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with moms, says that though we may feel proud of our ability to do multiple things at once, we may actually be losing time by doing so. “The human mind can truly focus only on one task at a time,” she tells Scary Mommy, “so ‘multitasking’ is actually ‘task-switching.’”

Trueblood explains that though we may get really good at making that switch quickly, every time we do it, we lose a little time compared to if we had just focused on a single task for a longer period. The time it takes to “switch gears” adds up and ultimately decreases the amount we’re able to accomplish.

Also, the notion that moms in particular can do multiple tasks at once, while it may portray us as heroes, isn’t helpful. The ubiquitous image of a mom literally juggling to-dos as she moves through her day (there are hundreds of stock photos portraying this scenario) places an unfair and unrealistic expectation for us to do it all, all at once.

Don’t Be A Hero

Trueblood suggests that moms stop feeding into this stereotype. “When moms juggle multiple tasks simultaneously,” she says, “it sends a message to those around them that they can be interrupted anytime. ‘Mom can handle anything!’” We may wish we could be that mom that can do it all, or maybe we just feel pressured to be that mom — but it’s not realistic or fair.

Kayti McDaniel, a licensed clinical social worker and California-based therapist pointed out another problem with multitasking: “Multitasking can actually be experienced as a threat to your nervous system,” she tells Scary Mommy. “This can trigger your body’s stress response.” McDaniel described stress and anxiety symptoms like a pounding heart, muscle tension, chest pains, sweating, difficulty taking a deep breath, and headaches — all things most parents have felt at one time or another.

When I experience these symptoms, I usually attribute them to a justified sense of overwhelm due to having too much to do. And my solution is — you guessed it — to try to accomplish more than one thing at a time. Could that sense of overwhelm actually be caused by my trying to multitask as opposed to the existence of my too-long to-do list? And even if it is, what the heck is a busy parent supposed to do? Just … not do certain chores?

As a parent, there are literally a thousand things to do — how can we possibly get to them all if we don’t sometimes tackle multiple tasks at once? Who’s going to step in and save us when we stop doing everything at once and the house of cards comes tumbling down?

Communication Is The Key To Quitting

The blanket advice for anyone trying to stop multitasking is simply to focus on one task at a time. But Trueblood says that the best way for moms in particular to help themselves is to communicate with their family about their efforts to minimize multitasking. “Ask your family to leave a note on your desk with their request, instead of stopping what you’re currently doing,” Trueblood says.

If we’ve spent years playing into the “do it all” stereotype, we may have inadvertently trained our families — especially our kids — to expect us to drop what we’re doing at any given moment to immediately attend to their request. “I have a good mom friend who literally gave herself a concussion as she frantically ran around the kitchen one morning,” Trueblood tells me. “She turned too quickly and slammed right into the open door of her microwave oven.”

Who among us has not tripped and fallen or stubbed a toe or slammed a finger due to rushing around trying to do multiple things at once?

So, to avoid personal injury due to frantic multitasking for your family, set boundaries. Cultivate an understanding and an expectation that your needs, your time, your sanity, are important too. This models self-respect and self-advocacy for your kids while teaching critical life skills like patience and delayed gratification. Not to mention, it wards off a sense of entitlement — ask any teacher how they feel about entitled kids who have been taught they should have their every need met immediately.

How Does This Look In Practice?

Perhaps you have five minutes left of paying bills and your 11-year-old comes to you with a question about his math homework. You can tell him you need five more minutes to focus and finish what you’re doing and then you will help him. In the meantime, he can work on a different problem or just hang out. Or, before you start paying bills, you could tell your kids (depending on their ages) that you need 10-15 minutes to accomplish a task and any needs that arise will have to wait.

Trueblood recommends tackling tasks one at a time in order of priority. “You’re far more likely to get the most important tasks done, done well, and done on time,” she says. McDaniel agrees. “Honor your limited time, energy, and mental bandwidth,” she says, “by asking yourself, ‘What is the most important task for me to tackle in the next 15 minutes?’” Focus on that one thing until it’s done. Not only will you get more done this way, but you’ll be way less stressed.

Of course, some tasks really are simple enough to do two at once, like cooking dinner and doing dishes. It wouldn’t make sense to stand around waiting for a pot to boil while dirty dishes crust in the sink. But overall, you deserve the mental calm that comes with focusing on one task at a time. Being a multitasking superhero sounds cool in theory, but all it does is cause more stress. Besides, you were already a hero anyway — no multitasking required.

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