Confessions Of A Multitasker

Last Friday, Elaine–my partner at $200K Freelancer–called me while I was in the middle of a trip with my daughter to the National Museum of Natural History’s Bug Zoo. We were talking about e-commerce plug-ins for the site.

“Oooh,” yelled the crowd in the background. “Don’t mind that,” I said, or something similar. “The tarantula just ate the cricket.”

Since I have become a freelancer, this kind of multitasking moment has become routine. I multitask so much that I can categorize multitasking into at least three types. I also know there is a difference between being tightly scheduled and actually multitasking, though sometimes one leads to the other.

Sometimes I toggle from one client’s work to another. Sometimes I do a physical task, like sweeping or weeding or walking while I am on the phone or working out a problem in my mind. The most challenging kind of multitasking is, without question, mothering and working at the same time.

Some management consultants would view my work habits as inefficient and disrespectful. A few parents I know would even say they are downright dangerous. What if my daughter had wandered into the path of a pedophile (or the tarantula!) while my focus was on the phone.

Those critics say multitasking is an illusion. It’s an update of the old quality time vs. quantity time, except now it’s not just about parenting. Our brains are splintering, we are in hyperdrive, we are driving ourselves crazy by trying to do too many things at once.

Well, maybe.

There are times when I’m sure that my performance as a mother or as a writer/editor was not as stellar as it would have been because my brain was consumed by two or three things at once. But I have come to accept multitasking as part of my life now. Part of being a freelancer, and especially a freelancing parent, is being able to multitask successfully.

The easiest kind of multitasking is the first one I mentioned above. Doubling my time by sweeping the kitchen or dining room floors while I’m talking to someone is routine now (the rooms near my office are some of the few crumb-free zones in my house). When I walk to pick up my daughter at school, I almost always squeeze in a phone call or two. One of my neighbors down the street told me that he’d chopped wood while listening in on a conference call.

I also toggle a good deal between different kinds of work and different kinds of clients.

Often, I’m on a daily deadline for one client while I’m maintaining the Twitter feed of another one, which means tweeting something every few hours. For example, I’ve been working on this post for about two hours. During that time, I’ve tweeted twice, taken a phone call about hiring an intern, talked to my nanny about the schedule for summer time – and kept an eye on the clock because I know I need to file another story for a different publication by 1 p.m.

Mothering and working is the most guilt-ridden kind of multitasking. I can solve some kinds of problems while I’m working, like opening a jar or getting a snack from a high shelf. But this is the kind of multitasking that rapidly gets out of hand. Child care is just inherently unpredictable. Once, I got into a argument with a former business partner while I was walking my older daughter home from school. I couldn’t get off the phone–I didn’t want to cede my point  but in the middle of the walk, she started to cry because I wasn’t listening to something she needed me to hear. I resolved to do phone calls on the way to pick her up, but never on the walk home. So far, so good with that resolution.

Not only do you multitask more as freelancer, you are often called upon to disguise the fact that you are multitasking.

In an office, it’s OK to say to a co-worker: “I’m waiting for a crucial call – I might have to bow out of the meeting.” Or, better yet, you can say, “Can we talk tomorrow? You know that really demanding client … he’s killing me with this project!”

As a freelancer, on the other hand, it’s usually not okay to say to a client: “This other work for this other client is more important than what I’m doing for you.” It’s also not acceptable to say, “I’m just helping my daughter unclog the play dough machine while I give my semi-full attention to your ideas about marketing.”

I have often disguised the fact that I am mothering while working. Once, when I was interviewing a (very wealthy) New York City official for a story about the Olympics, I had one foot on the lid of the diaper pail and one eye on my 1-year-old, who really wanted to take what I’m sure would have been a gold medal headfirst dive into the pail.

Later, I told him that story. He was not amused. That was in my early days of freelancing. I’ve since gotten a better sense of when to share (with Elaine) and when to not share (with multi-millionaires and CEOs who have never scraped orange goo off the bottom of the fridge while listening to an earnings call).

I have never multitasked the way Bill Clinton did while talking to Congressman Sonny Callahan, a Republican from Alabama. I have, however, done phone interviews from the examination table in the doctor’s office, in the front seat of my car while my kids and husband were eating dinner inside a nearby restaurant, and from the librarian’s office at my daughter’s elementary school during the book fair that I run as a volunteer every year.

What the Experts Say

The research on multitasking does not, surprising, condemn the practice, though it does suggest there are limits. No doubt I frequently push those limits.

In an article for MIT’s Sloan Review, Martha E. Mangelsdorf summarized research that said Italian judges who focused on one case at a time completed more cases per quarter than those who multitasked. On the other hand, she also found research suggesting that information workers who did more projects in one time period increased their productivity, as measured by revenue generation. “But as the level of multitasking increased, the marginal benefits of additional multitasking declined — and, at a certain point, taking on still more tasks made workers less productive rather than more so,” she wrote.

I don’t know of any research into the question of whether my brain is likely to explode from the work of having near-simultaneous thoughts about tarantulas, ETFs and e-commerce plug-ins. If the explosion occurs, I’ll be sure to document it here on 200kfreelancer. That would be the multitasker’s way.

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  3. admin

    And Joel — I have this game I play with my kids (it only started working when they were about 4/5). I tell them: Mommy wants the person on the other end of the phone to imagine I’m working in an office in a 70-story skyscraper. “Help me play that game,” I say to my kids … so my daughter asks me a lot of questions in pantomime these days.
    My children also learned young that the best time to ask me for a cookie or a candy was while I was on the phone … because I always say yes.

  4. admin

    Many times. Or I’ve just learned over the years not to volunteer too much information. Like, if I am going to pick up my daughter at school, I don’t say that’s the reason I have to get off a phone call.

    Actually, after I wrote the post, I was worried in a different way about how people might view my multitasking. At the museum, I was chaperoning a group of three third-graders and my own four-year-old. But the trip to the Bug Zoo was tacked on to the end, a bonus for my four-year-old after the older kids had returned on the bus.

    So I adjusted the post to make it clearer to any MacArthur Elementary parents who might happen to read that I wasn’t on the phone while watching a group of four children … only while watching one, my own.

    I go through a lot of backflips to keep the sides of my life hidden from each other!

  5. Great story! My favorite times are when my 4yo son sneaks into the office while I’m on an interview, and starts grabbing stuff off the desk. He knows I can’t do much about it other than give a stern look and wait for my wife to figure out where he is.

  6. Well said! I have written parts of many stories on a laptop in my car while waiting to pick up my kids from school. And how many times have you said to someone “I can’t do the interview then, I have another meeting at that time” when really you’ll be chaperoning a field trip?