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Myth of Multitasking

That women are better at multitasking than men is something that’s been repeated as fact for as long as I can remember but—spoiler alert—it isn’t true. Today I’m talking about how multitasking actually costs us more time than we think, how it’s a tool of the patriarchy, and how we can shift our perspectives on multitasking so we can get out of the cycle and propel ourselves forward.

Ready? Let’s get started.

In this episode:

  • How multitasking makes us less productive
  • Why women are considered better multitaskers than men
  • A look at the difference in hours spent doing housework between the genders

Listen to the podcast here:

The Myth Of Multitasking

Hello, hello. So I have a friend, Veronica Yanhs, who tracks her time like a beast. I think she actually might have talked about it a bit in the interview she did about systems with me that you should definitely go and check out. But she talks about tracking her time every single day to gauge her productivity and see where she’s spending her time.

Now, I have been a big champion of time blocking my day for well over a year now but I haven’t tracked every single minute of that day with time tracking ever. I’ve tracked time for clients but not when doing my own work or working on projects that don’t have time constraints. 

So, spurred on by Veronica’s constant example of how she makes herself and her team more purposeful and efficient with time tracking, I decided to do it myself. And almost immediately I noticed something REALLY interesting. I’m a VERY unsuccessful multitasker when it comes to doing my own work. That is, I’m much better at staying focused when I’m working on client work but I multi-task or task switch like a mofo when I work on my own shit. 

And almost immediately I noticed something REALLY interesting. I’m a VERY unsuccessful multitasker when it comes to doing my own work. Click To Tweet

I am constantly switching between tasks or trying to do too many things at once because it’ll only take me a minute. I know there are some “it’ll only take me a minute” folks listening right now so you know exactly what I mean. You see a message come through in Slack or Voxer or wherever and you think oh I can do that right now because it’ll only take me a quick minute. And then 30 minutes later the task you abandoned to do this other task super quickly isn’t done and you may or may not have actually finished this other thing.

I do know that some of it has to do with the drop in my attention span as my anxiety and depression have deepened over the last year but if I’m really honest with myself I know that I have always been a multitasker. You cannot survive as an elementary school teacher without some basic multitasking skills. Eyes in the back of your head and all that. 

And like most women, I’ve always told myself that it’s ok that I multitask because women are just naturally better at multitasking anyway. It’s not like I’m really losing that much time by doing it. Except, we aren’t and I am.

And like most women, I’ve always told myself that it’s ok that I multitask because women are just naturally better at multitasking anyway. Click To Tweet

Women being natural multi-taskers is a myth perpetuated by the patriarchy because women are expected to do it all. Especially in the rise of women working outside the home, we’re still expected to come home and make dinner, tidy up the house, fold the laundry, schedule all the doctor’s appointments for the kids, help with homework, and put everyone to bed. And many of those things are being done at the same time.

It’s fucking exhausting.

In my research for this episode, I actually found two studies on multitasking that compared both women and men. A UK study from 2013 said that women were definitely better at it and a German study from 2019 said women were no better at it than men.

The difference between the two studies (aside from the fact that the affirmative 2013 study was done by men and the negative 2019 study was done by women) is that one compared how well women and men completed a series of tasks in a short time span vs actually comparing the brains of women and men while multitasking. 

The 2013 study found that men were slower and less organized than women and that they tended to act impulsively, jumping into the tasks to complete them as soon as they received them rather than pausing to problem-solve which tasks to prioritize. I feel like this just revives my long-held sentiment that women naturally make better leaders in tough situations than men but…I digress.

It just proves that women are socially conditioned to be better at juggling multiple tasks because the same is not expected of men. Click To Tweet

But that study doesn’t prove that women are naturally or biologically better at multitasking or task switching than men. It just proves that women are socially conditioned to be better at juggling multiple tasks because the same is not expected of men. If you do it because it is conditioned into you that you should, it doesn’t mean you’re good at it. It just means you’re used to operating that way so you do. 

I know many neurodivergent friends who have felt they were broken because they can’t multitask in the way women are “supposed to”. But it isn’t us that’s broken. It’s the society that expects us to do all the things without any help from partners.

The 2019 study, however, the one that looked at the brains of women and men while they were multitasking, found that women’s brains are no more efficient than men’s brains when rapidly switching between tasks. Human brains are literally not wired to do multiple cognitive tasks at once, especially when those two things use the same parts of the brain. (Because obviously, we’re able to walk and breathe at the same time, so don’t come for me over this one.)

But it isn’t us that’s broken. It’s the society that expects us to do all the things without any help from partners. Click To Tweet

The researchers measured reaction time when participants were asked to rapidly switch between two tasks or to focus on two tasks at the same time. And women’s reaction time and accuracy were no better in the brain than men’s. 

And nowhere is this double standard of multitasking for women more apparent than in the home. And I’m speaking in heterosexual couples here. Because even women who work outside the home still do more housework and child-rearing than men no matter who the primary breadwinner is. That means that even women who make more money than their male partners are doing more cooking, cleaning, and raising of the kids. And the numbers jump astronomically when kids are involved, too.

A HILDA survey found that in couples without dependent children women did roughly 7 MORE hours of housework than men if the man was the breadwinner, 4 more hours if their earnings were equal, and was still doing almost 1 1/2 more hours if she was making more money than he was.

And the numbers are ridiculous when you add kids to the mix. In couples with dependent children, women did 29 more HOURS of housework and caretaking than men if the man was the breadwinner, 14 more hours if their income was about equal, and 13 more hours if she was making more money. 13!

Yet women aren’t cognitively any better at multitasking than men. No fucking wonder straight, partnered women are all so tired. And moms especially! 

Multitasking isn’t working for us, it’s probably killing us. Not just because in many cases we are expected to do it by others but because we’ve been conditioned to believe we should be doing it, we should be doing it well, and if we aren’t then we have somehow failed. 

But you aren’t built to multitask and many other studies have shown that you’re actually less productive when you do it. Click To Tweet

But you aren’t built to multitask and many other studies have shown that you’re actually less productive when you do it. I know that is exactly what I found for myself. I lost so much time switching from task to task instead of focusing on one thing at a time. But I thought I had to be on all the fucking time and if I wasn’t then I was letting someone down, whether that someone was me or someone else.

If you are a proud multitasker, I really challenge you to ask yourself if it’s actually serving you or if you could get more done by focusing on one thing at a time. And I know that’s not always an easy thing. Especially as we ease ourselves out of pandemic life and kids are still doing distance learning and partners might still be working from home and the dog has to go out and those dishes are staring at you.

But it’s an important thing to consider how we might actually be holding ourselves back from really getting the things done that we want or need to get done in our lives and businesses because we waste so much time trying to do all the things instead of doing one thing at a time, finishing it, and moving on to something else. 

And whether you have a neurotypical or neurodivergent brain, I highly encourage you to follow Veronica’s lead and track your time to see what you’re spending it on throughout the day because I promise you it’ll be eye-opening. And definitely go check out the episode we did together on auditing your systems because it’s pure gold. Alright, that’s it for me today. Bye, y’all.

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