The Myth of the Multi-Tasking Woman

Ask any woman what her key strength is and pat comes the proud reply, “Multitasking!” Ask any man what a woman’s key strength is and pat comes the approving reply, “Multitasking!”

I have seen women swell up with pride at the thought of being excellent multitaskers… and shrivel up with stress!

Let’s get one thing straight – there is no such thing as “Multitasking”.

Of course, there are many things on my mind right now, I’m writing this blog post, mentally planning a lunch date with my sister, wondering what I’ll have for breakfast, and gearing up for the workshop later today.

Am I multitasking? Not really.

What I’m doing is task-switching. As entrepreneur and author Gary Keller puts it, “Juggling is an illusion… in reality, the balls are being independently caught and thrown in rapid succession.”

While it is true that women can divide their attention significantly better than men can, is it really beneficial like we think it is? Let’s look at some reasons why multitasking can be more stressful than beneficial.

  • A study in 2010 found that our brains can handle two tasks at the same time pretty efficiently, but add any more tasks to that and you’ll start making mistakes left right and centre, performing about as well as an eight year old. It may feel like we’re doing a lot of work but task-switching can reduce your productivity by 40%! That’s a big number!
  • Research has shown that people who regularly multitask have lower short-term memory or working-memory, which has a direct impact on creativity and decision making. Added to that, people who multitask are always on “high-alert” mode, leading to higher stress-levels.

“Multitasking is great in the kitchen when you are trying to time the chicken to be ready at the same time as the potatoes. But do not assume it is a great way to manage a workday,” says author and consultant Joanne Tombrakos.

In fact, many researchers believe that the reason women are better than men at multitasking is because they’re socially conditioned to do so.

Take the example of a senior woman leader who I met recently. She told me that she learnt to multitask only after getting married and having children, as she learnt to balance her work and the household. But before she knew it, her career had taken a beating.

“Multitasking is a myth we buy into, to meet society’s expectations of a good mother, a good wife, and a good daughter-in-law and our own aspiration for a good career,” she said!

I agree!

If we have to sustain and grow in demanding careers, we need to revisit this myth. I did… and got my husband to revisit it too!

So let’s get down to some serious myth busting, ladies and gents!

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