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 — 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.

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