06/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Moms, Mother's Day, and the Myth of Multi-Tasking

If there's one thing mothers have always been great at, it's multi-tasking. Since hunter-gatherer days, moms have been expected to do everything and do it well. And they generally do. Mine did a great job, despite some pretty heavy obstacles.

But I'd like to clear up one thing on this subject of multi-tasking. It's the name. I was talking with a friend who gets more done in a day than most teams of 12, and she was telling me she's very comfortable with multi-tasking. Yet I've observed her stress level go up significantly whenever she tries to do too many things at once.

The more we talked about it, the more I realized that while she excels at getting many things done, she isn't great at multi-tasking in the way we've been taught. What she's great at is something I now call juggle-tasking.

Traditional "multi-tasking" is the process of doing more than one thing at a time -- for example: driving while talking on the phone, not that I've ever done that, or talk on the phone while answering email, not that that's ever happened.

However, numerous studies have shown that traditional multi-tasking significantly decreases our ability to perform tasks. There's a natural "lag time" in the human brain when we keep asking it to switch back and forth between multiple tasks. And while these may be only fractions of seconds, eventually all those fractions add up. Plus, can't you always tell when someone's answering their email while they're talking to you?

According to a highly unscientific study of mine, I've noticed that when I try to do too many things at once -- like write an article while trying to book a flight -- I feel a lot more stressed than when I just do one thing at a time, finish that one, then go on to the next.

Think of it this way. Let's say you have three projects to complete: A, B and C. They each take three "chunks" of time, whether it's an hour, a day or a week. Here's how you would do them in the traditional multi-tasking way:


Now, watch what happens if you simply do one thing at a time:


In the multi-tasking way, you didn't finish project A, B or C until the third chunk. But, using the old-fashioned, out-dated, crazy, nutty concept of doing one thing at a time and then finishing it, each project not only gets done in one third the time, I bet you breathed a sigh of relief just thinking about it.

Now, I'm not a mother and so clearly I can't speak to the thousand things that busy moms have to do every day of their lives. However, I contend that most busy moms would be a lot less stressed if they gave themselves permission to stop trying to get everything done all at once.

I further believe that most moms -- indeed, most busy people today -- are actually not multi-tasking, but juggle-tasking. I created that term to describe when someone is juggling multiple tasks, multiple projects, even multiple jobs.

Juggle-tasking is, ironically, easier and more productive than multi-tasking, because traditional multi-tasking means switching rapidly from one task to another and back again. Naturally, every mom on the planet has to do this more times in a day than I've had hot dinners.

However, with juggle-tasking, you take the approach that yes, I've got a thousand things to do today. But I'm going to get them done faster, easier and with less effort if I start one and finish it, then start the next one and finish it, and so on.

I realize we don't always have this luxury in our lives or workdays, especially with all the bonus pressures we're facing these days. However, many teams, departments, even entire companies -- not to mention millions of people's lives -- are run by "got-a-minutes" and never-ending distractions that destroy productivity and keep us nice and stressed.

(For a great book on how to reduce or eliminate the "got-a-minutes" that kill productivity, see SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life: A Four-Step Guide to Getting Unstuck by my good friend Julie Morgenstern.)

See how many projects you can juggle-task this week by starting one and finishing it before starting the next one. I've decided to go all old school on the whole phone/email thing, which is why I physically walk away from the computer with my cordless phone when I'm talking with someone. My hunch is that they can tell I'm actually paying attention, which tends to make the other person feel better than as if answering email were more important than what they're saying.

We don't live in the Information Age. We live in the Information Overload Age. That's why it's up to us to take as much control as we can over our daily habits, if we want to get more done while spending less time and money.

Oh, and Mom?

Happy Mother's Day. Thanks for being there. I love you.

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Noah St. John, Ph.D. is the author of The Secret Code of Success: 7 Hidden Steps to More Wealth and Happiness (HarperCollins) and inventor of The Afformations Method.

He helps people get rid of head trash and get better results faster, easier and with less effort. Read a free book excerpt at