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Lisa Belkin

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Working Moms Multitask More, And Enjoy It Less

Posted: 12/ 1/2011 12:14 am

I am writing this while propped in bed, next to my husband, who is also working away on his laptop. He's writing something for work. I, too am writing something for work (this article) while also IMing with my college son; keeping an ear out for my high school boy to come upstairs for bed; checking my email on my Blackberry every paragraph or so; clicking over to Amazon on my laptop when one of those Blackberry emails, from my sister, contains a link to a Hanukah present my niece would absolutely love; skimming the latest college application essay that the high school boy sends electronically; and periodically tabbing over to Huffington Post Parents to see how many comments my most recent article has gotten.

My husband is still writing something for work.

Working mothers, according to a study released today in the journal of the American Sociological Association, multitask more frequently than working fathers. And it makes us much crankier.

Researchers tabulated that working moms spent about 10 hours more each week on multitasking -- a total of 48.3, compared with 38.9 for men, or, as co-author Barbara Schneider, a sociology professor at Michigan State University put it: "Working mothers are doing two activities at once more than two-fifths of the time they are awake, while working fathers are multitasking more than a third of their waking hours." (So that doesn't take into account everything we get done while we are asleep? I am pretty sure I make To Do lists in my sleep.)

The study went on to ask working mothers and fathers how they felt about all this double-doing. Men said it was a positive experience -- they felt they were accomplishing things. Women said it made them feel stressed and conflicted (which, I hope you notice, are two different emotions at the same time.)

While reading the report I was distracted. Didn't I learn recently that there really is no such thing as multitasking? So I stopped, and Googled, and found dozens of experts who remind us that our brains really cannot do more than one thing at once. I read through quite a few of them, but this, from Psychology Today, should serve as a good summary for those of you who don't have much time. As writer Jim Taylor concludes (he has a PhD, I wonder what it's in?) :

I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but ... what you do isn't really multitasking. Despite appearances, you simply can't talk on the phone, read e-mail, send an instant message, and watch YouTube videos all at the same time. In fact, when you think you're cruising along the information highway, you're actually stepping on the gas then hitting the brakes, over and over. You and every other so-called multitasker  are actually serial tasking.  Rather than engaging in simultaneous tasks, you are in fact  shifting from one task to another to another in rapid succession.  For example, you switch from your phone conversation to a document on your computer screen to an email and back again in the belief that you are doing them simultaneously. But you're not.

Maybe that's what makes women cranky -- the realization that we are not nearly as efficient as men think they are. Or maybe it is because, as the Sociology Association study found, women do more of this serially-multiple-tasking, and while some feels productive, some more feels overwhelming.

Which brings us back to the study. (I DO apologize for losing my train of thought. My memory just isn't what it used to be. At least once a day, it seems, I'll walk into a room and realize I have forgotten why I'm there. There's a study about that too -- I found it when I was Googling "no such thing as multitasking." As Gabriel Radvansky, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame explained when his results appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology last month: "Entering or exiting through a doorway serves as an 'event boundary' in the mind, which separates episodes of activity and files them away. Recalling the decision or activity that was made in a different room is difficult because it has been compartmentalized.")

But I digress. Researchers theorize that the reason women feel differently about all this than men is because there is different content to their multiple tasks. When mothers do it, they juggle household or childcare tasks, while men are more likely to "talk to a third person or engage in self-care" the study says. In other words, men feel less stressed when multitasking because, well, what they are doing is less stressful.

I finish writing, type my goodnights to my college son, make a few grammar suggestions to my high school son, tell my sister the gift has been secured and begin to shut down my computer. That's when I notice that the embargo date on the study -- ie the date before which I may not write about it -- is not the following morning, but the one after that.

In other words, I didn't have to stay up late to get this article done.

Perhaps I should have paid more attention.