Lockdown reveals myth of multitasking for ‘working parents’
Truth is, over the past six weeks, we’ve all been a little bit of both. And that’s OK. It has to be.
Wealthier families have been able to employ external assistance to care for their kids. But for most parents, lockdown has involved a constant juggle of some fairly diabolical trade-offs.
Attend to your child’s education and risk underperformance at work, which could jeopardise your source of household income?
Or keep up the work and risk your child falling behind in every skillset but the fine motor skills required to hold an iPad and watch Bluey?
But at least I figured out: you can’t be in two places at once. To think otherwise is crazy-making.
Schools can’t pretend their decisions to close didn’t negatively affect their students’ learning. And workplaces can’t pretend their employees who are parents have been as productive as usual.
But you know what? I’m thankful for the experience.
It’s brought into stark relief the root cause of so much stress and worry for so-called “working parents”: that of trying to be in two places at once.
Because in truth, there’s no such thing as a “working parent”. The phrase is an oxymoron. At any point in the day, you’re either a human being performing work tasks or a human being performing caring tasks (unless you’re a childcare worker and then bless you).
In reality, studies have shown that “multitasking” is actually rapid-fire “microtasking” – rapid switching between one task and the other. There is a cognitive cost to all this switching. We take longer to perform two tasks if they are interspersed than when given the time to do each sequentially.
Too much switching between tasks leaves us cognitively overloaded and less effective decision-makers in both realms.
In the introduction to their recent compendium The Economics of Multitasking, two economists, Charlene Kalenkoski and Gigi Foster, point out that certain tasks require different neural programs to run in the brain. Some mundane or routine tasks, such as cooking or cleaning, can be performed at the same time as a higher-order or more cognitively demanding task, like talking to a friend on the phone.
But it’s not possible to run two highly demanding neural programs – such as deep-thought work for writing a column and home-schooling – simultaneously. In reality, we’re task-switching. And this comes at a cost. “All multitasking is costly because something is lost when a brain switches between tasks,” they conclude.
As a parent during this pandemic, I’ve been forced to become a better economist. Economists are, after all, experts at allocating scarce resources. And time is the most scarce resource of all. I’ve survived by drawing clear demarcations in my lockdown life. When I am home-schooling, I am a teacher. When I am simply being with my child, I am a mother. When he is being cared for by his other parent, I am a worker.
There have been surprising upsides to this. Now, when I parent, I do just that. Some of my most enjoyable moments so far as a parent have been in the past six weeks, because I simply decided to be present for that one task: parenting. Turns out, parenting can be quite enjoyable if you’re not also feeling the tug of other responsibilities.
When I do get time to sit at the desk, the work is intense and concentrated. It has to be.
I’ve also imposed several other “single-tasking” restrictions on my time. The bedroom, for instance, is for sleep. The smartphone has finally been banished to charge overnight in the living room.
Over the past decade or so, technology has transformed our economy into a 24/7 affair. Lockdown has made it clear for me that it’s up to us to redraw the boundaries between work and home life. From now on, for me, it’s one task at a time. Things will be done deliberately and sequentially. Now I am doing this. Then I will do that. I will no longer try to be two things at once.
Lockdown has forced all of us to reconsider old ways of doing things and to rediscover some old truths. For me, it’s that work should happen between 9am and 5pm (while the kids are at school). Sleep should occur between 10pm and about 6am. The remaining hours are for caring for kids or rest and relaxation.
They say that life is just one thing after another. At least, that’s how it should be.
Jessica Irvine is a senior writer.
Sign up to our Coronavirus Update newsletter
Get our Coronavirus Update newsletter for the day’s crucial developments at a glance, the numbers you need to know and what our readers are saying. Sign up to The Sydney Morning Herald’s newsletter here and The Age’s here.
Jessica Irvine is a senior economics writer with The Sydney Morning Herald.