In Defense of Multi-tasking

So a new round of media reports has come out recently about multi-tasking and its detrimental effects on the brain. Several major studies conducted over the past decade, including one published this past August by professors at MIT, have come to the conclusion that multitasking does more harm than good.

According to an article in the New York Daily Mail, ”Professor Earl Miller of MIT studied the brain activity of volunteers as they performed several different tasks simultaneously. That study revealed that, though the volunteers were seemingly focusing on all tasks at once, their brains had zeroed in on only one or two tasks at a time. This means there was minimal brain power being exerted for each task, and whatever power was being used, only came in brief, unproductive spurts.” *


The kids are packed up, the car is loaded, and I’m off and running…

Well, I’m no MIT scientist, but I’ll tell you this: not only am I a habitual multi-tasker, but I could not survive a single day without doing so. Unless I were on vacation…on a desert island… with no children, housework, yardwork, work work, doctor’s appointments, or meetings in sight.  I can’t help but wonder whether these scientists have any clue about the daily life of the average work-from-home/stay-at-home mom.

Yes, my desk has about 10 different projects on it, all varieties. There’s a book proposal I’m editing for a friend and one that I’m writing for myself. There’s everything that needs to be done for Fayette Woman, which alone could easily take up all of my brain-space for a week and then some, if I had the luxury of time. There are thank you cards waiting to be sent (note to my friends and family: yes, they’re coming, I promise). An adorable onesie, which I bought for a friend who just had a baby, needs to be wrapped and mailed *before* the baby outgrows it. Stacks of research books for my project are towering over me, and I have yet to even crack their covers.

And that’s just the desk. There are a million and one things that need to be done with/for/by the kids, and the house always needs cleaning. I won’t elaborate because I know you moms out there know exactly what I’m talking about.

So here’s my question to the MIT folks: If I didn’t have some form of multitasking in place, how would I ever get through my day??  If I were to focus on only one project at a time, maybe I’d feel a little less insane, but I would be working from 6 a.m. until midnight getting everything done. Day after day. And that itself is its own form of insanity, the soul-crushing kind.

Besides, as a writer, I am an innate multi-tasker. For example, most of this blog was concocted in my head yesterday morning while I was getting ready to go out. Most writers I know need to let their writing ideas “simmer” in the backs of their minds while they do other projects and activities. Sometimes it’s the only way to write.

A cluttered desk is a sign of what, exactly? I can't remember anymore.

A cluttered desk is a sign of what, exactly? I can’t remember anymore.

Does it drive me crazy sometimes? Of course. About once a day I go into overload, and then I need to give myself a “time out”—sit down with a cup of tea, with nothing to read in front of me. I try not to think about what projects I’m in the middle of writing. It’s usually enough to just close my eyes for ten minutes.

After the ten minute” timeout,” I’m back in the game: quizzing Anika on her multiplication tables as we drive off to her ballet lesson, unloading the dishwasher while listening to Ethan read aloud for his homework, doing Pilates moves on the floor while playing with Owen. Talking on the phone while doing just about any housework (I recently scrubbed the heck out of our four bathrooms while on a 2-hour, utterly maddening phone call with our health insurance company). Scoop up the toys on the floor, put the baby’s sneakers on him, check my e-mail, draft a quick paragraph, return a phone call as I move laundry from the washer to the dryer. As long as it all gets done, it’s all good.


Kristin Girard

Kristin Girard is the editor of Fayette Woman magazine.

October 19, 2009