The Magic of Multitasking and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves

For a while there, multitasking was the buzzword for success. Women could have it all — career, marriage, kids, friends, hobbies, beauty — all through the magic of multitasking.

But like shoulder pads and greed and everything else that “worked” in the ’80s, it turns out cramming a thousand things into every single moment is actually a pretty bad thing.

Yes, women are inherently better than men at multitasking. As Sir Ken Robinson explains in his must-see TEDTalk, the corpus collosum, a bundle of nerves that manages the communication between the two sides of the brain, is thicker in women.

Some speculate this difference evolved in support of the very earliest of gender roles. As hunters, men needed to focus on one thing, and one thing only: killing dinner. As gatherers, women had to complete many tasks: gathering plants, stoking the fire, tending to children.

And though few of us hunt or gather these days, women still shoulder a wider array of responsibilities than men, averaging 48.3 multitasking hours a week, compared with men’s 38.9.  But being better at something does not make it any better for us. In fact, the very experience of multitasking creates more stress in women than men.

Even worse, we’re not actually getting any more done. Most of the time we think we’re multitasking (writing an email while helping with kids’ homework while watching “Grey’s Anatomy,”) we’re merely oscillating focus over and over again (dear editor, McDreamy, 3×3=9, McDreamy, thank you for your feedback, McDreamy, carry the 1, McDreamy.)  This continual shift from one task to another creates a lag in the brain that slows productivity by as much as 40%.

That slowdown is something creative people like writers just can’t afford. Beyond managing the normal life stuff like a day job, family, and errands, writers have a whole other world to manage — research, writing, editing, networking, social media-ing. Most of these tasks are accessible by the click of a mouse, so it’s easy to slip into the habit of multitasking: write a paragraph here, research a bit on Google, post a status update to a writer’s group on Facebook. But with each transition, our brains lag and our creative momentum wanes.

So without multitasking, how the hell are we supposed to get it all done?

As Tony Schwartz of The Energy Project says, “When you engage, fully engage. When you disengage, fully disengage.”

Few of us have the luxury of devoting hours on end to our craft. So while it’s inevitable that we must serial task, we can choose to do so consciously. Instead of tricking ourselves into thinking we’re multitasking, we can break up the tasks and devote ourselves to each enterprise in a smaller, more focused block of time.

So if you only have an hour each day to devote to being a writer, spend ten minutes answering urgent emails, another ten checking up on your writer’s group on Facebook, another ten researching. Then plow into a solid half hour of writing. Or break it up into larger chunks of time, devoting a solid hour to each of those tasks one day a week and not letting them distract you on the other days.

Most importantly, when you’re writing, write. Immerse yourself in your characters, their heads, their worlds. If you’re stuck on something, make a note to look it up later. If you need a break, go for a walk. But don’t muddy up the painful, beautiful creative process with all the business that surrounds it.

The same can be said for everything else in your life, too: walking the dogs, giving the kids a bath, cooking dinner. Amidst the mundane chaos of everyday life, strive to be present in every single moment.  You’ll not only be more productive, you’ll be more happier, and quite possibly, a better writer.

How do you juggle real life, writing, and the truly important things, like watching Patrick Dempsey shirtless? Share your process in the comments below.

Lisa Weseman lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two unbearably adorable Doodles. Her debut novel, a contemporary romantic comedy called The Name of the Game, launches July 23 at major ebook retailers, including Amazon.com, BN.com, and iTunes. She blogs at www.lisaweseman.com.



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16 Comments

  1. thanks for this post – I was just thinking about how I will I ever get any writing done with a full time job, wedding planning, and taking care of my pets! I agree we should just focus on thing at a time but I do have to admit about spacing out sometime at work thinking about my future books/characters. In a way it does save time because then when I get to the keyboard I am ready to go! =)

  2. Excellent point and one I should have addressed! While I do strive to be more present in the moment, I *definitely* spend my alone time writing in my head. I’ve missed the exit on the freeway more than once because I’m too distracted by the scenes I’m dreaming up. I call it “percolating” and I think it’s a great way to get to know your story before you face the blank computer screen.

  3. Great points, Lisa. I schedule out my day – time for non-fiction writing, time for blogging, time with the family, time writing, more time with the family…It doesn’t always work to perfection, but so far I’m doing okay because for the time I’m at a task I can focus on just that task.

  4. I am Irene Preston, and I am a multitasker. While I do find multitasking invaluable during ‘routine’ tasks (many of which require some period of waiting) I agree with total immersion for writing. The best writing comes only when I achieve ‘flow’, something that rarely happens while multitasking.

    Is setting aside a block of time for writing hard? Yes. Is it essential? Yes. For me anyway.

    What a great article, Lisa. Thanks for sharing this research!

  5. Lisa, I think this is a fantastic post — too many women feel (IMO!) that not only CAN they multitask, but that they SHOULD. I’m glad there’s research proving this is counterproductive. My goal for this stage of my life is mindfulness, whether I’m writing or washing the floor. If I figure out some secret to achieving it, I’ll let you all know. 😉

  6. Great post. Thanks for this advice.

  7. My attempts at multitasking fail miserably! Example: I sit on the sofa hiding my Kindle behind a throw pillow while I check Twitter. My two year old hosts a party with plastic food and Dixie cups on the coffee table. I drink imaginary juice, and then check my e-mail. Am interrupted to take a pretend bite of a neon-yellow miniature loaf of bread. My son spies the Kindle and it’s all over. Why did I ever download the kiddie apps? Ten minutes later he’s bored with clicking pictures of trucks and I sneak the device back under the pillow to look at my critique partner’s feedback. Thirty seconds later I am bonked on the head with a teddy bear and I drop the Kindle.

    So I guess the lesson learned is that toddlers are the ultimate prevention against attempts at multitasking! I just need to give in,let it be and wisely use what time I DO have to myself. Writing is the most important thing, hands down. I’ve found that my best ‘writing block’ is from 5 am to 7 am. And no matter what the day brings, I will have already written at least one chunk. It makes me feel great all day long.

  8. I have to be careful not to get sucked into comparisons. So-in-so gets up at four o’clock in the morning to write. I don’t. My brain is mush at four o’clock in the morning, but that doesn’t stop me from thinking that she’s got something I don’t. I write as much as I can, when I can. I have to remind myself that I’m just as serious as my four AM friend.

  9. Thank you all for making this a great discussion! Elizabeth, I totally agree with you about feeling we SHOULD be mulittasking. I thing that feeds into Beth’s point about fighting the urge to compare ourselves with other women and other authors. A huge epiphany for me came when one of my dayjob co-workers announced (seemingly out of nowhere) that she’d just sold her first book. She’d been writing every morning at 4 am before coming into the office. I knew that would *never* work for me, but it also motivated me to find my own process. Now MY first book is coming out and I can assure you I never once got up at 4 a.m. to write. So I guess the point is finding your own path and letting yourself off the hook when it comes to getting it all done.

  10. I’m Lynn, and I’m a multi-tasker.. Which gets me into trouble when I need to focus on the details. Great post Lisa.

  11. And my children and husband wonder why I get cranky when they expect me to find legos, help with homework, cook dinner, edit, twitter and so on and so forth. We’re all happier when I set a time and announce “I’ll play legos for five minutes then I need to get the biscuits in the oven.”

  12. Lisa, that was a super article. The adage “one day at a time” might need well be “one task at a time”. I try to cram so much in a day, sometimes I forget to enjoy myself. Thanks for reminding me to slow down. Carol Ritten Smith

  13. Great post! I think it is definitely good to remind ourselves that we can only do what we can do. I am a midnight writer, always have been–even through college–undergraduate and masters. That is the only time in my life of four kids, Montana living and a wonderful husband that I can devote 100% of my focus to my writing.

    I do check e-mail during the day, but I only do that every other day. I tried to do so everyday, but trying to keep up with everything always is too much to expect right now. Perhaps I’ll find a better rhythm soon, but as for now, I write in the middle of the night and keep up with social networking every other day. 🙂

    Thank you Lisa for sharing!
    All the Best,
    Rionna

  14. Great post! I know that I’m all to often guilty for the multi-tasking while helping the kids with homework offense. Twitter can be such a black hole for me. I have to turn the browser off while I’m writing or I find myself clicking to see what amazing tweets might have come in since the last time I looked.

    I have to admit, though, that I plot best while behind the wheel. I think that’s likely because I spend so much time driving kids from one place to another.

    Thanks for sharing!

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