It’s an all-too-familiar scene in my house: I’m standing at the stove, stirring the mac and cheese while occasionally checking email or text messages on my phone. Meanwhile, my older daughter is at the kitchen table, asking for help with her homework and her sister is in the other room, yelling for me to come look at her latest Lego creation. I’m in constant motion, draining noodles, answering math questions, tapping out texts and stepping on Lego bricks.
It’s all going along well enough, or so it seems. But my tension is rising, even if I’m not aware of it. Eventually, something gives. I spill the milk or drop my phone or step on a Lego or the girls start bickering; whatever it is, something sends me over the edge and I explode. I lose it at my kids, and the evening starts to unravel.
Some version of this happens to many parents on a regular basis. In fact, these episodes are so common that many of us have come to think of them as an unavoidable part of daily life with kids. If we do happen to stop and wonder what happened, we often assume it’s because we had a rough day at work or the kids were tired or getting sick. While these things may be true, they’re not the whole story.
The root of problems
The truth is that multitasking is making us lose our tempers with our children. This is a major bummer for those of us who want to believe we’re being all efficient and awesome when we try to tackle more than one project or task at once. But multitasking increases our stress in a number of ways:
• It makes us more distracted and less attentive, increasing the likelihood that we’ll screw something up.
• It increases our anxiety and dampens our creativity, which means we worry more than we need to and have a harder time thinking up effective solutions and responses when problems arise.
• It makes it more likely we’ll miss important information and cues. If we had just noticed that the kids were getting hungry or overtired, we could have given them a snack or a nap before they freaked out.
• It makes us less efficient because we’re only half-doing whatever it is we think we’re doing, which means it will take twice as long to finish it, or it won’t be done correctly.
Multitasking is pervasive. How many times have you read a job description stating “ability to multitask required”? But it’s also how our minds work. Our brains weren’t made to focus on just one thing at a time; they evolved to think, to scan, react, notice, wonder, plan, regret and imagine, regardless of whether all of that thinking is actually helpful. And multitasking tricks us into believing we’re on top of everything, when in fact it actually increases our stress.
Most of us have years of practice trying to do multiple things at once, and the more we practice something — anything — the better we get at it, even if it’s not something we actually want to get “better” at. So we are stuck in a habitual behavior that can cause parental meltdowns.
Fortunately, there is another way. We can choose to single-task, or focus on just one thing at a time. In the event that you just read that sentence and rolled your eyes so hard they almost fell out of your head, please bear with me. I’m a working parent, too, and I get it. We’re all crazy busy, and it often feels like if we’re not doing as many things as possible as often as possible, everything will fall apart.
I’m not saying parents should set a goal of never doing more than one thing at a time. That’s neither necessary nor possible. I just want people to start noticing how multitasking may be connected to their temper, and to see single-tasking as a powerful strategy for calming down when they’re about to lose it.
This isn’t easy; multitasking is a tough habit to break. However, the more we practice single-tasking, the easier it becomes. Here are a few steps to get you started:
• Notice when you’re multitasking. You’ll be amazed at how often you’ve got multiple balls in the air without even realizing it.
• Remember that you can always choose to do just one thing at a time. If this feels like an impossible choice because you absolutely can’t set down any of those balls, consider what will happen if you drop any of them. Consciously choosing to focus on just one thing at a time will help you get through your day more effectively and efficiently.
• Decide if now is the time to single-task. If you’re not sure, ask yourself the following questions: Are you already tense, stressed, anxious or tired? Are there any significant ramifications if you mess something up? Are you with your kids? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then it’s probably a good time to slow down and focus on whatever is right in front of you.
• Carry on, either way. Multitask if you can. Empty the dishwasher while you listen to your favorite podcast. Fold laundry while you help your son with his homework. But if you’re tempted to tap out a work email while managing a sibling conflict, or make dinner while you over-analyze a weird comment from a friend and the kids are buzzing around demanding attention, well, try not to do that. Instead, put away your computer or smartphone and make a plan to resume your overthinking after the kids are in bed. You’ll be far more likely to help your children, and less likely to lose your cool with them.
The first step to all of this, of course, is to believe that multitasking isn’t helpful, and that it’s making you less patient and more reactive. And that’s not going to happen until you intentionally try single-tasking. I know that in our house, evenings go more smoothly if I put my phone away, turn off the news and tell the girls that I can pay attention to them once I’m done cooking. Sometimes I have to repeat that a few times before it sticks, but eventually they listen. Once dinner is on the table, I can help with homework and admire Lego creations without getting frustrated.
Getting my body and brain on the same page, and doing just one thing at a time, decreases my stress because I’m no longer worried about which ball I might drop. I can slow down and think about what might be going on with my kids, and what we all need at any given moment. And then I’m much more likely to respond to my children thoughtfully, rather than exploding at them reactively.
Naumburg is a clinical social worker, speaker and the author of “How to Stop Losing Your Sh*t with Your Kids.”