Multitasking without guilt

Lots of folks, myself included, have written pieces about the downsides of multitasking. In general, trying to do two semi-related activities at once is just inefficient. When I check my email while writing an article, I get distracted, wind up surfing the web, and then struggle to regain my train of thought.

But even though there are plenty of instances when it is bad to do two things at once — texting and driving, say — there are other occasions when this isn’t a problem. Many of us listen to the radio while driving. We go out to dinner with friends, family, or business associates, and conduct these conversations while eating. We watch television while running on the treadmill. 

In that spirit, I’m trying to make a list of ways you can multitask without guilt. When is multitasking a smart arrow in the productive person’s quiver? What activities do you combine?

In other news: I’m over at Fast Company, writing about What you need to know to create an accountability group that works. You can also read my interview with Crystal Paine (of MoneySavingMom) in How to combat a ridiculous work schedule and stop feeling so overwhelmed.

I’m also still looking for people to participate in the Mosaic project! The time logs are coming in steadily, and I’m learning a lot and starting to see patterns. There’s more about the project (looking at how professional women with kids spend their time) here.

16 thoughts on “Multitasking without guilt

  1. When I’m doing a really boring or repetitious data entry/analysis kind of task, I *have* to listen to something else or I can’t stay focused and on track.
    And, of course, commuting is a great time to listen to something else, or if you’re not driving a great time to do work. I’m very productive at referee reports when I’m away from the internet waiting for something else to happen. Some folks do this sort of thing during boring but required meetings and talks.

  2. I just read a book called “The Myth of Multitasking” that separates inefficient multitasking from what the author terms “background tasking.” For example, I iron while watching Downton Abbey. I’m probably less efficient at ironing while I watch TV, but the show acts as an incentive to me to actually do the ironing. And it also helps me feel like I’m not just wasting time watching TV.

    1. @Catherine – thanks for the tip. I will mention Crenshaw in my post on this. “Background tasking” is an interesting way to refer to it. Though it’s still not quite the same as talking on the phone while folding laundry.

  3. Yeah, it works best for me to do something else in the background when I’m doing more physical (less mental) tasks. Like listening to podcasts while working out, watching TV while folding laundry, or talking on the phone doing any household chore. Sometimes even repetitive tasks for work (like plugging numbers in for an analysis, or typing in hand- written data into the software program) I prefer to do while listening to something (or, if its in the evening, enjoying my wine!). Its when the task demands even 80% of your attention that you can’t take 50% of it elsewhere.

  4. I listen to audiobooks on my ipod while I do routine chores (cooking, cleaning, folding laundry). Listening to something fun keeps me from getting grouchy about doing housework!

  5. I practice my French while cooking dinner. I think I do better because I’m distracted and not trying to be perfect.

    Things that involve people and relationships probably shouldn’t be done distractedly.

  6. Alex Soojung-Kim Pang discusses multitasking at length in his recent book “The Distraction Addition.” He explains that most people define it incorrectly. What modern people (as opposed to our ancestors) think of as multitasking is really task switching. Cooking, for example, is multitasking because you are doing several activities at once to accomplish one goal: dinner. Humans have always multitasked, and it isn’t a bad thing. Task switching is something entirely different, according to Pang and others he cites in his book who research this.

  7. I call this multi-tasking but maybe others won’t. I…
    * meet friends for exercise.
    * hold “walking meetings.” A few regular contacts and I will talk business while walking around the lakes so we get exercise in while networking. I don’t golf, but this serves the same purpose.
    * read or clear out email while getting my hair cut.
    * fold laundry while watching TV.
    * clear out email while cooking. (You can get a lot done while waiting for noodles to boil but a timer is key.)
    * help kids with homework while making dinner or folding clothes.
    * talk on the phone while doing housework or mindless work tasks. A wireless headset helped me get something done during long conversations with my lonely father in the months after my mom died.

    If I have big projects where I need to focus, I single task for a set period (say, 50 minutes) and then take a short break (10 minutes) to do something more fun. I have to set a timer though or I’ll end up wasting too much time on email or internet reading.

    1. @Marci- I love the walking meeting idea. I think it’s a brilliant way to get some exercise in, plus it’s probably easier to have difficult conversations when you’re doing something physical. Less nervous energy to dissipate!

  8. I wrote a post about this a while back, and I differentiated between head tasks and body tasks. I can do those simultaneously (iron while listening to music, read while riding a stationary bike, etc.), but I can’t combine two head tasks.

  9. You can do two unrelated things at once more easily than on the same apparatus (like your example about email and writing on the computer). For example, when babies were in cradles, women rocked the cradle with their feet while they knitted or mended.

    Like others, I do walking meetings, and do household tasks like folding laundry while watching TV. I also do things like computer maintenance (backups, cleanups) where you only have to check the computer screen occasionally, prune plants, clean out my purse/refill travel bottles after a trip. This also ensures that I’ll hop up during a commercial to discard leaves/threads or get the next batch of stuff to work on.

    If a friend is in crisis and needs to talk on the phone, I wear earbuds with a mike so I can fold laundry, wash dishes, cook, etc. while speaking. (This also helps my thoracic outlet syndrome, caused by years of trying to talk on the phone and type at the same time–get a headset, folks, and avoid years of physical therapy. 🙂 )

    I loaded all my CDs onto iTunes rather than pick and choose tracks, to make the process quicker. The next step is to then delete the tracks I don’t want. So I flip and listen to music while filing or chopping food for cooking–easy to reach over and hit the delete key, and nice to have music while I file and cook.

    I read NY Times online and books during my commute (obviously safer on public transportation than in a car!), which is easy even when standing, as long as you have a light paperback or electronic device.

  10. Does singing while showering count? Well actually, singing while doing anything, especially cooking. And to avoid being overheard, singing while vacuuming! I like the distinction one commenter made between mental and physical tasks. Singing is active and creative but doesn’t tie up one’s hands. Great post, Laura!

  11. Driving and audiobooks. Work email and work staff calls 🙂 I used to listen to music when doing math problems (when I used to do math problems a long time ago). Now while programming occasionally I have some (mostly instrumental) music on. But other than that I try to practice the art of doing one thing at a time. It’s better for almost 80% of the things we do.

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