The Rockwood Files: The multi-tasking myth

rockwoodfiles2-205x300By Gwen Rockwood, newspaper columnist and mama of 3

In an ironic twist, it turns out that the hardest thing to do is one thing at a time.

I just returned from a writing conference where I heard fellow writer Megan Jordan give a presentation on the power of uninterrupted thought and how we get less and less of it as time and technology march on.

She said we’re addicted to multi-tasking and studies show we get a chemical brain rush when we do it. We’re in love with the idea of killing two birds with one stone, being in two places at once and keeping all the balls in the air. But at what cost do we keep all these plates successfully spinning?

Scientific studies on multi-tasking prove that we only think we’re getting more done when, in fact, productivity declines when we multi-task. We have more trouble remembering things. Even worse, the quality of work suffers significantly. What good is it to do all the work if the work isn’t all that good?

One study on multi-tasking shows that a person’s IQ actually drops 10 points when she does two things at one time and it continues to drop 10 points for each new thing she tries to keep going at once. So on those days when I frenetically bounce around like a ping pong ball among five different to-do list items and berate myself for feeling dumb as a stump and not getting enough work done, it might be because all that activity has rendered me literally as “dumb as a stump.” Who knew?

Having convinced me that multi-tasking isn’t a good way to work or live, I was ready for the speaker to tell me the secrets to reclaiming the lost art of focusing on one thing at a time. I figured the cure would involve green tea and yoga. But then she said the unthinkable: “Don’t check your email first thing in the morning. Get your most important work done first.”

What? Isn’t that a little like saying “Don’t breathe”? I couldn’t even imagine starting the day without first scanning through email for any fires that need to be put out or notes that need to be sent back. Just thinking about it made me nervous. Could I do it? Was it safe? Would my head explode? And those panicky feelings made me realize that I am, in fact, a multi-tasking junkie looking for my next fix.

So I decided to experiment. This morning I got up and started writing, and I haven’t checked email, scrolled through my Facebook news feed, trolled through tweets or fired off any quick text messages between paragraphs. I put my iPhone on silent and left it in another room so I wouldn’t be electronically nudged away from my work.

I won’t lie and say it’s easy. I wish there was a multi-tasking patch I could wear to wean me off the habit of doing three things at once. Multi-tasking has become so instinctive that it feels odd to sit alone with nothing but the voice in my head and the silence in the room. Yet I also realize that focus is exactly what I need to do the work I want to do and to be the mother my kids deserve.

Just because we can walk and text, drive and talk, watch TV and surf, and read email while our spouse or kids tell us about their day doesn’t mean we should. In our “do more, more, more” society, maybe our most important task is to relearn the power, beauty and kindness of being able to focus.

gwen rockwoodGwen Rockwood is a mom to three great kids, wife to one cool guy, a newspaper columnist and co-owner of To read previously published installments of The Rockwood Files, click here. To check out Gwen’s new book, “Reporting Live from the Laundry Pile: The Rockwood Files Collection,” click HERE.

Author Photo credit: Lisa Mac Photography