The New Multitasking: How Moms Do It Differently Than Dads—And Why They Don’t Like It

Cheryl Lock
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Multitasking: Why Moms Do It More Than Dads, And How They Feel About ItMultitasking. As a mom, you might as well put that talent on your résumé.

Take an average working mom’s morning, for example. It’s 6 a.m. You’re checking your BlackBerry work messages while talking your 6-year-old out of the same pink tutu she’s worn for the past three days, before heading to the kitchen to make everyone’s breakfasts and lunches.

And all this before your morning coffee.

A new study published in the American Sociological Review found that while moms and dads spend more time working on two or more things simultaneously at home and at work, working moms not only multitask more frequently (at a rate of 48.3 hours per week compared to 38.9), they also experience more negative emotions as a result.

His and Hers Multitasking

“Working moms in our study experienced higher levels of stress regarding multitasking activities at home,” says study co-author and sociologist Barbara Schneider, Ph.D., of Michigan State University. “And even though dads have increased the time they’re spending on their children and helping, their ‘multitasking’ at home often includes paid work experiences, like being in front of the computer or talking to a client on the phone. Mom’s multitasking is different.”

According to the study, based on urban and suburban middle-class families, both mothers and fathers work about 64 hours a week on job- and home-related duties, but that’s where the numbers diverge: Moms report that housework accounts for 53% of their multitasking at home, as compared to just 42% for dads. And even the way parents divvied up the time they devoted to childcare (36% for moms, 28% for dads) varied, with fathers reporting that their time was focused on ‘fun’ activities, like coaching a sports team or playing games with their kids.

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That’s not all. The fact that we’re more likely to be stressed by our at-home multitasking suggests that the balancing act makes us feel like we aren’t being good mothers. “The bar is rising on what it means to be a good parent,” Dr. Schneider says. “Moms don’t feel the number of hours they are spending multitasking count as spending quality time with children, even when it involves childcare.”

In a separate interview, Shira Offer, lead author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Bar Ilan University in Israel, said that this emotional component is an essential takeaway of the study. “This helps explain why women feel more burdened than men. It’s related not just to the amount (of work they’re doing), but to their experience when they multitask.”

How to Do Two Things at Once … Better

In an era where most moms wouldn’t dare be caught without their “workloads” (aka iPhones, BlackBerrys and other smartphones), it can be hard to know when it’s time to focus on one task at a time. “Your brain is conditioned to want to make switches between jobs, and the key is to stop the conditioning by turning off the buzzes, vibrations and beeps that distract us,” says Dave Crenshaw, author of “The Myth of Multitasking: How ‘Doing It All’ Gets Nothing Done.”

We tapped Crenshaw for other helpful tips to make the most of multitasking:

Flip the Switch

Activities can be divided into one of two categories—”switch” or “background.” Switch multitasking occurs when a person tries to do two or more things at the same time that both require attention, like having a phone conversation while getting her kids dressed for school. Background multitasking occurs when two things happen at the same time, but one doesn’t require much thought, like running on a treadmill while watching TV. “Background tasking can actually be very efficient,” says Crenshaw. “The problem occurs when people try to do switch tasking.”

Make Conversation King

Multitasking while engaged in your favorite form of media is almost always a no-no, say the experts. Turn off the radio or television and put down your book when someone is trying to have a conversation with you. “You can do a lot of damage to a relationship if you multitask when someone is trying to talk to you, because that communicates that the person is not as important as your other task,” says Crenshaw.

Give Yourself Time Limits

Set clear boundaries at work and at home, and commit to a schedule that works best for you. Oftentimes we try to be two places at once, and wind up being fully in neither. For example, say that from 6 to 9 p.m. you will not touch a computer or pick up your phone. Then, from 9 to 11 p.m. you can check back in on work if you need to, once the kids are in bed.

Leave a Buffer

People frequently schedule appointments back-to-back to get the most out of a day, but that can lead to you having to rearrange often, says Crenshaw. Instead, try allowing at least a 15-minute buffer between all of your activities. That way you won’t be stressed if a meeting goes a bit over, and, should you find yourself with a spare window of time, you might even be able to tick another small task off your list. (For other ways on how to use your time to reap maximum rewards, read this).

Schedule a One-on-One

Particularly important for spouses, keep track of all the ‘tasky’ items the two of you might usually try to discuss while doing other things or in passing. Although it might not seem like attention is required to answer the question, “Can you pick up Sarah after ballet on Wednesday?”, Sarah will beg to differ when ballet ends and neither parent is there to pick her up. Keep a running list of all the things you need to talk about, and schedule the same time every week to sit down together and go over all the family questions that deserve both of your undivided attention.

Put Your Attention on a Diet

There are so many different things you could read about or focus on, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. Instead of haphazardly paying attention to as many things as possible, try choosing a couple of outlets to really dive into. For instance, if you’re trying to improve a certain skill at work, focus your reading on things that relate to that topic as opposed to consuming five different books all at the same time. 

Tell us—what are your tips for making the most out of multitasking?

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