Today the universe conspired against me – daycare closed due to a sick child, my four backups were all unavailable – forcing me to break the First Commandment of Working from Home:
Thou shalt not work while caring for thy children.
As a freelance court reporter/court reporting firm owner, I work from home about 80% of the time. I’ve attempted to work while my children – age 7 ½ and 3 ½ — are home with me, but it never goes well. My 7 ½-year-old is pretty understanding about my need to work if she’s here, but the 3 1/2 -year-old doesn’t give a flying you-know-what about deadlines and court dates and blah, blah, blah; he just wants to play. If I try to work while they’re here the resultant multitasking ends with everyone being frustrated. In addition, I make mistakes, and I get a lot less done, so I just try to avoid it at all costs.
And, yet, here I sit, working, with both children present. But today I decided to try a different tactic. I sat the kids down and explained that Mommy had to get some work done today, but that I didn’t want them to feel ignored, so we needed to come up with a plan. My kids LOVE plans. So we decided on the following:
- Everyone will get dressed.
- Mommy will have breakfast (they had already eaten).
- The three of us will play for a bit.
- Kids will watch a movie while Mommy gets some work done.
- We will go to the Family Museum.
Is this plan working flawlessly?
Ha! Absolutely not.
But it’s much better than the days when I just put on movie after movie for them while I sit in my office, and 100 times better than days that I try to sit in the same room as them while they try to play with me and I try to proofread at the same time – a tactic I’ve tried over and over and which I think steals a little more of my soul a little each time.
The kids feel like they’re getting attention, they know there is an upcoming activity and not just more of the same to look forward to, and I feel like I’ve set realistic expectations for everyone, so I’m not overly frustrated. I’m still multitasking – as I type this, my 3 1/2 -year old is walking through my office with a blanket on his head, which I’ve already told him not to do twice, and a few minutes ago I had to stop everything to watch him jump over a tractor – but I started the day being mindful, and that made a big difference.
The Downside of Multitasking
The most recent research on multitasking suggests we should stop engaging in this activity immediately. Yesterday, if you’re able. Every time I read another article with similar findings, they make complete sense. We should stop multitasking; it’s not productive and it can be damaging to our relationships. But is it even possible to completely eliminate multitasking from the chaotic lives of today’s parents? In my layman’s opinion, no, it is not. But perhaps we can find mindful ways to multitask which accomplish more while still nurturing the relationships we treasure, as I [think] I did today.
What really is Multitasking?
What you call multitasking is really task-switching, according to Guy Winch, Ph.D., author of Emotional First Aid: Practical Strategies for Treating Failure, Rejection, Guilt and Other Everyday Psychological Injuries. “When it comes to attention and productivity, our brains have a finite amount,” he says. (MacMillan, n.d.)
“It’s like a pie chart, and whatever we’re working on is going to take up the majority of that pie. There’s not a lot left over for other things, with the exception of automatic behaviors like walking or chewing gum.”
He, like most experts, asserts that constant task-switching actually lowers productivity, because your brain has to concentrate on the act of switching tasks, then refocusing on the new task. This back-and-forth significantly slows down the speed at which you work, and also increases the chance of errors. Forbes.com contributor Lisa Quast, in her February 6, 2017 article Want to be More Productive? Stop Multi-Tasking, states that studies have shown that multitasking can reduce productivity by as much as 40%.
How to Make Plans for Mindful Multitasking
In order to implement mindful multitasking, you have to ask yourself a few questions:
1. Given my child/children’s age(s) and personality/personalities, what are they capable of dealing with in terms of my inability to be directly interacting with them?
Knowing your children’s limits will enable you to more effectively implement a plan that everyone can live with. If you have an infant, for example, you can’t just leave that child in a room alone for any length of time, but perhaps that child would play contentedly in a pack-n-play in your office while you work.
2. What can I do for my children now to show them I am considering their wants and needs, even though I have to focus my attention on something else for part of the day?
For me, this means directly interacting with my children FIRST, before I start working or doing whatever else I need to accomplish. My kids need the reassurance that I am here and I love them and want to spend time with them. If I do that first thing, they are much more amenable to spending some time entertaining themselves or each other while I shift my focus for a while.
3. How long is it appropriate for my children not to be my direct focus?
In our house, I’d say I can go about two hours before the natives become restless. This is if both children are present, as my oldest is somewhat of a mother hen and will look after the youngest a bit. I keep my ears open for fighting and loud noises and crying, and I know where they are at all times, but I am not always in the same room with them. They wander into my office and chat with me, but tend to wander out when they realize how boring it is in here.
4. What can I offer up for my children to look forward to if they let me finish my work?
This doesn’t have to cost money or be extravagant. Kids are generally happy with a trip to the park, an art project, et cetera. Let them throw out some ideas, too. If they can’t agree on what the activity should be, write down everyone’s suggestions on slips of paper, put them in a hat, and draw one out.
These tactics can also be modified slightly so that you can mindfully multitask while being considerate of other relationships. My husband is often a “victim” of my multitasking and is frustrated by my lack of eye contact while he tells me stories about his day. But by applying some or all of these ideas to my relationship with him – obviously adjusting for age and context – I can get more done and still make him feel as important to me as he is.
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Balance is key
While multitasking is not the best way to manage your time, it is sometimes just plain unavoidable. By applying a mindful attitude to the way in which you multitask, I believe you can accomplish more while still nurturing and protecting those little hearts and minds – and the big ones – you love so much.
Do you have tricks or tips for mindful multitasking? Please share them in the comments!