A friend calls me on the phone and tells me about a story she’s just heard on the news. “It turns out,” she says rather pointedly, “that multitasking is counter-productive. You have to do one thing at a time in order to do it well.”
While she summarizes the latest findings on the topic, I make four peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I fill the dog’s bowl with food. I delete some junk email from my in-box. I unload the dishwasher. I retrieve my children’s hats and gloves from the clothes dryer and lay them out with their coats near the back door. I motion to my son that it’s time to practice the guitar.
“Multitasking makes you do inferior work, stresses you out, and makes you feel like your life is rushing by,” she says. “You probably get less done.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” I say, nearly dropping the phone as I zip my youngest child into her puffy, pink snowsuit.
What I don’t say is, that although the idea of only doing one thing at a time is very appealing to me, I can’t begin to imagine what havoc that would wreak in my life right now. Doing just one thing at a time? What?
My friend has one 11 year-old daughter; I have four children. My girls are five and seven; my boys are 9 and 11.
Her daughter dresses in a crisp, plaid school uniform every morning before going off to private school. Mine attend the public school down the street. The only uniforms they wear are of their own creation.
My eldest wears straight-leg jeans and shirts with his favorite baseball players’ names on the back.
My second child inexplicably told me three years ago, when in first grade, that his “signature color” was orange. He wears orange t-shirts and carpenter jeans to school almost every day. (This makes shopping for his school clothes very simple – orange t-shirts in short and long sleeves.)
My second grade daughter talks about her own, personal “fash” (short-hand for “fashion”) and wears clothes that – inexplicably – seem to be making just the right statement. Occasionally, she notes that her outfit looks like something Mary-Kate and Ashley wore in one of their movies. As I’m not a connoisseur of the Olsen twins’ movies – and because Mary-Kate and Ashley have such a vast body of work – I can’t always predict what my daughter will find acceptable.
My kindergartener still dutifully wears whatever I lay out for her the night before – mostly hand-me-downs from her fashionable sister. After school, between making hot chocolate and setting out tangerines and cookies for snacks, I look over my middle school son’s pre-algebra, remind my fourth grader how to make a capital “L” in cursive, help my second grade daughter use the word “stretch” in a sentence, and keep track of the color pattern – black rectangles and blue circles – my kindergartener is doing for homework.
And I answer the phone, begin to make dinner, try to remember when we last “misted” the gecko, and I let the dog in and out of the back door.
I know my friend has only good intentions when she mentions this news story to me.
Most days multitasking is a way of life for me. Having too many balls in the air sometimes makes me feel like they will all crash down in a big jumble around me. I do indeed get absent-minded – just as researchers warn we multitaskers will – and I forget little details that my brain deems inconsequential. Which neighbors got a hamster for Christmas? What kind of countertop did they put in across the street? Which socks did my daughter say are too itchy to wear? But, so far at least, nothing important has been forgotten. Nothing at least that I can remember.
There are seasons in parenting. A few years ago, I couldn’t imagine that my children would be able to pour themselves a bowl of cereal or take showers or walk home from school on their own. In this current season I still need to help with homework, with brushing their hair and making sure their teeth are clean, finding a missing library book, negotiating the details of a hard day, and with getting them where they need to go.
And, as I am one person and they are four, this involves some significant multitasking.
I do make an effort to resist our culture’s call to do-everything-at-once. As much as I need to think about several things at once to keep the household together, I do manage to build several “one thing at a time” parts into my day.
Here are a few: we eat dinner together every evening, without television. Phone calls, mostly, go unanswered during our evenings together. I read books – or at least one book – to my five year-old every day. I talk with each of them about the events of their day. I usually know which friends sat next to them at lunch, what the best and worst parts of their days were, and what most interests them at school.
Sometimes – surprisingly– I do find that the day has opened up and I am truly doing one thing at a time. These are restorative moments. I vacuum a room or read a magazine or make a long phone call and catch up with a friend.
But then the back door opens and everyone rushes in. And I couldn’t be happier to see them.