Doing a million things at once is so last year. Swap your max-it-out schedule for microtasking
Once you’re a mum, juggling is virtually in the job description, whether you’re at home with your little ones or combining family life with a career. So the question is, can we do it better? Not so that we pile even more into our already too-hectic schedules, but so we can take some of the pressure off? According to psychologist Gladeana McMahon, there’s some truth in the idea that women are better at multi-tasking than men.
‘It goes back to prehistoric times, when men would focus on hunting while women would stay at camp, where they developed compatible skills, such as foraging, cooking and looking after children,’ she says. ‘But modern life has stretched our innate ability to get things done. With 24/7 technology, increased job demands and ageing parents (as well as young children) to look after, we’re being pulled in every direction.’ And having taken multi-tasking to the limit, it’s no longer getting us positive results.
What we’re gradually realising is that multi-tasking is not saving time – it’s actually wasting it. Even the term itself is misleading. It was coined for computers, which can work on problems simultaneously. But our brains aren’t wired that way. According to research from Vanderbilt University, which used MRI scans to monitor what happens in our minds when we attempt two tasks at once, we can’t do more than one thing at any one time. Instead, we postpone one task to start the next, which is why time management author Dave Crenshaw calls multi-tasking ‘switch-tasking’.
He estimates that we’re losing around a quarter of our day in the process of ‘switching’. This is the time it takes you to remember what you were explaining to your toddler before you stopped to read an email, or how long you need to run back downstairs to finish the ironing after resettling your cranky baby. But, when you’ve got small kids, unless you combine some tasks, you’d be making Duplo towers all day instead of cooking dinner (or comparing your life with your friends on Facebook). And this, apparently, is fine. It’s only tasks that require real brain power that are best left until after baby bedtime, so you can give them your full attention.
Once you’re a mum, juggling is virtually in the job description
And, when it does, our health suffers. ‘Stress is a biological reaction to having too many demands and not enough capacity to deal with them,’ says Gladeana. We produce the stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin, which give us a burst of edgy energy but don’t actually make it easier to focus. It also makes us moody and less able to sleep, causing headaches and an increased risk of depression in the long term – hardly a recipe for happy family life.
FINDING A BALANCE
So, what’s a busy mum to do? Luckily, there are ways to turn our natural urge to multi-task into a simpler, stress-less way to get things done. First is microtasking, a do-it-smarter technique that divides your time into manageable chunks. ‘I call it the difference between the laser and the shotgun: taking a really focused approach to tasks gives you time to spare, rather than a scattergun technique that means you never get to the end of your must-do list,’ says Allison Mitchell, author of Time Management For Manic Mums (£7.58, Hay House). ‘It’s different from multi-tasking because you dedicate yourself to one goal, and for just 10 minutes. Set a timer and, when it rings, move onto something else.’
WRITE A LIST
Allison recommends writing a list of things to get on with whenever you have a few minutes to spare. ‘You could put away the washing or start sorting baby snaps while your baby is napping. Do each for 10 minutes and you’ll achieve more than you’d imagine,’ she says. She also suggests making a rota for boring chores to put an end to pressure-inducing procrastination – if there’s one thing worse than cleaning the bathroom, it’s knowing you still haven’t done it. ‘We tend to put off jobs, saying we’ll clear out the garage or pack away the kids’ clothes when we have a whole day. But mums never have a day to themselves,’ says Allison. ‘There’s a rule called Parkinson’s Law, which says that any job expands to fit the time available. If you devote 15 minutes to cleaning the bathroom, that’s how long it will take. If you don’t plan, the same job will take you an hour.’ This is why it’s important to set a time limit, then be done.
Her other tip is to make sure you delegate to your partner, rather than becoming the family’s number-one, super-capable multi-tasker. Because the better you are at taking on a million things at once, the more likely you are to be saddled with them for good – definitely not cool. Finally, prioritise your activities. It helps to put things into perspective, so you can micromanage each one more effectively, according to how urgently it needs doing. ‘I call them “do now” jobs, “by the end of the week” jobs and “getting around to it” jobs – think cooking dinner, buying a birthday card and booking a holiday,’ says Gladeana. The other stuff can usually wait. And then you often realise it wasn’t that important anyway.