What’s more beneficial – single-tasking or multi-tasking?

Photo by liikenevalo

I‘m a big believer in multi-tasking. I like folding laundry while I’m talking with my husband, letting dinner simmer on the stove while I empty the dishwasher, and straightening up the bathroom while my preschooler takes her bath.

I’ve also witnessed the power of single-tasking, and in this era when we worship productivity, there’s something to be said about doing only one thing at a time. You can fully concentrate on the task at hand, you’re less prone to making mistakes, and in many cases, the task is done quicker because you’re not doing something else.

It’s good to blend both multi and single-tasking into your day. The problem lies when we apply the wrong approach to the wrong task. We single-task when we should be multi-tasking, or more often in my case, we multi-task when perhaps it’s best that we single-task.

Here are a few things I do better when I single-task:

  • create our monthly budget
  • update our accounts
  • menu plan
  • respond to emails
  • talk on the phone
  • spend time with my children
  • talk with my husband

And here are some things that are basically accomplished well when I multi-task:

  • cleaning while I listen to podcasts
  • cooking while straightening the kitchen (unless it’s a dish that requires my full attention)
  • decluttering paperwork while I watch a movie with my husband
  • washing dishes while I chit-chat with my daughter
  • nursing my son while I catch up on blog reading

Too often, I try to talk on the phone while I straighten up the house, or menu plan online while also reading blogs and replying to emails. I end up scatterbrained and a bit chaotic, not fully concentrating on anything.

A Mama’s Challenge

Here’s the irony. With children at home, it often feels impossible for us to focus on anything more than two minutes at a time, because we’re constantly interrupted. As soon as I sit down to update our bank accounts, my daughter wants me to sharpen her colored pencils, or my son has dropped his toy for the umpteenth time and needs help retrieving it.

It’s the stage of life, and it is what it is. Small children require a lot of hands-on, interactive parenting, and while it’s a short-lived job, it leaves you utterly exhausted come bedtime, doesn’t it?

Even though I’d love to single-task most of my day jobs, it just isn’t going to happen. What mom doesn’t multi-task all day long? You’ve got to change the diaper and answer the phone. You oftentimes need to read to your older one while you nurse your younger.

My Personal Solution

It’s a great thing for children to learn independence, and they learn patience when Mommy can’t get to something exactly when they want it. But we can’t make our children need us less. Being a mom requires all our attention, and the short breaks throughout the day called “nap time” are rich blessings to enjoy some quiet. Otherwise, to expect single-tasking as the default method of getting things done is just setting ourselves up for frustration.

Here’s what I remind myself:

  • It’s a good thing for my children to learn patience and to put others’ needs before their own
  • They are young, and they need help with a lot of tasks
  • My main job is to parent, not to get my to-do list done

  • I’ll often have to resort to multi-tasking, even when I prefer single-tasking

Remind yourself today that there are more important things in life than getting things done. It’s good to be productive, yes. But we can’t do everything at once – and sometimes, certain things deserve being done one at a time, with all our devoted attention. Like parenting.

Do you find this to be true in your life? Is it even possible for a mom of littles to single-task? Which is easier for you – multi-tasking or single-tasking?

Tsh Oxenreider

Tsh is the founder of this blog and just finished traveling around the world with her husband and 3 kids. Her latest book is Notes From a Blue Bike, and believes a passport is one of the world's greatest textbooks.

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  1. I’m a big believer in multi tasking. I have a lot of plates that I’m constantly juggling, and so multi-tasking is the only way I can ever accomplish anything.

    There is one big exception however, that you talked about as well, human interaction. I make myself carve out time for my kids, my husband, friends on the phone…

    If I only give part of my attention, I’ve found, it’s worse than giving no attention at all. Better that the laundry go unfolded and the sink stay piled high with dishes, but my kids get cuddles and their drawings get stuck on the fridge. And, after all, a happy, paid attention to husband is more willing to do household chores than a neglected one, right?

  2. Thanks for this! It was just what I needed. I’ve been feeling so frustrated lately for not getting everything checked off my to do list each day. Your reminder that my job of mothering is the most important thing in my day was just what I needed to start my morning off in the right frame of mind.

    Joanna’s last blog post…Video Of A Common Snippet Of My Day

  3. @Kelly – Absolutely right, my friend. Why is it so hard for us to forget that the people who live in the home are so much more important than the actual home? I love your thoughts here.

    @Joanna – You’re welcome! It’s easy to get frustrated by that to-do list, isn’t it?

  4. Wow! This is such a hard lesson to learn, isn’t it? Especially when you just feel there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish all that needs to be done. One the the blogs on my Reader this weekend (sorry, I can’t remember which one) suggested just stopping and spending a few minutes with your kid when they get demanding, and it seems to placate them enough for you to get other things done. Simple, but profound.

    I had to chuckle at your “my job is a parent” comment. Kinda hard to focus on that when your living room looks like it threw up on itself! 🙂

    Emily’s last blog post…What It Means to be Lonely

  5. I also find that I enjoy things (talks, playing, listening) if I can just concentrate on the one thing too. However there are times when like yourself, I multitask even when I know it is not optimal to get through the day.

    PlanningQueen’s last blog post…Menu Plan Monday – One I Prepared Earlier

  6. Hi Simple Mom

    I just found you recently 🙂

    I love this post and I’m a big believer in the power of focus, or as you call it, single-tasking. I wanted to link to it, but I see I haven’t put it on my website yet. Anywayyyy, this is the line I really want to excerpt:

    The truth is that we can really only do ONE other thing if an EXISTING task is one being done on AUTO-PILOT.

  7. its getting harder and harder for anyone to single-task with messages popping in from all directions. Our attention spans are suffering from this information bombardment also.

    Just like Marcia, I definitely think we work better when focused on one thing at a time…… grasshopper

    there was a recent study which led to this conclusion also.

    Marc Beharry’s last blog post…Biden, Joseph R., Jr.- (D – DE) Senate

  8. Definitely a battle that every mom has to fight! I think the trick is in learning when to multi- or single-task and to act accordingly but to also not get stressed out when life circumstances just don’t allow for that “perfect scenario” to happen! Definitely something I’m still working through, and realizing is more and more important with #2 on the way!

    Another huge key is learning to utilize the resources we do have available so that we can be at the top of our game as much as possible – we’re in a retuning state here at our house (both hubby and me), working on implementing to-do lists that really work, and in just one week, it’s already been so beneficial! Thanks for the words of encouragement along this journey!

    jodi’s last blog post…Walk-Walk’s Cereal

  9. Thank you for this reminder!

    Rachel’s last blog post…Picnic Table Garden Update

  10. I feel that multi-tasking or focus tasking depends on the task at hand. Recently I feel that single tasking is more effective for me then multitasking as I get more things done that way.

  11. Thank you for this post! I especially appreciated the reminders you posted to yourself. Those need to be my reminders as well.

    Kelly @ Wisdom Begun’s last blog post…My Son

  12. I’ve been working on cutting down my multitasking. I find that if there’s too much of it in the day I’m frazzled and cranky. This morning though I’m multitasking – trying to get a lost kitten out of my truck’s engine and get my house work done. Oy!

    Avlor’s last blog post…Just Finished – Artemis Fowl: The Time Paradox

  13. Oh yes. Oh yes. I can’t even watch a serious movie anymore because it demands too much focus. I am learning to go back to single tasking, although usually only at nap time.

    But I think it helps to pay attention to the tasks at hand, the daily childrearing, in order to really appreciate your life as you are living it. Accept that your time, your priority, is about the kids and do THAT.

    I talked to someone yesterday who said they had a productive day. I said, I didn’t. But then later, I thought about it and realized the productivity was there, the grocery shopping, the feeding children, the playing, the cuddles, the potty training, even me reading a book, and only reading a book– this was all the product of my life, the raising of children, the getting back to my self that I need to do.

    Not unproductive at all, but it looks so different from our expectations of what productivity looks like.

    rowena’s last blog post…Somewhere Under the Rainbow

  14. My kids are grown and gone but I face these same issues at work. It would be awesome to have a solid 2 or 3 hour block to focus on finishing a project yet constant interruptions come from bosses, customers, email, IM, SMS and the phones. I think my years as a mom prepared me for this!

  15. i’m not much of a phone talker, so when someone does call me, i’m usually up and doing something — putting away dishes, picking up toys. it’s really unbearable to not do something with my hands, but i also think i stay attentive to the conversation.

    one area i try to improve is to actually look at my girls when they are telling me something important (instead of folding clothes, cooking, etc). i want them to know that i’m actively listening. and when my husband and i have time at night together, i try not to do anything else.

    make art every day’s last blog post…I’ve been tagged.

  16. There are certain things I am a huge believer in multitasking, but some things require constant attention. When I was reading about the getting interrupted while doing the budget, I am reminded on something my mother did when I was younger. We had a little timer and she would set it for 5 minutes, or maybe 10 if we were older, and we couldn’t ask her for help in that time. We had to get help from each other (and there were plenty of us kiddos so that was enough sometimes) or wait. I have no idea if she worked on a budget in this time, took a phone call from a friend, or even just went to the bathroom; but, it worked. Probably better once us older kids could help out the younger ones.

    Rebecca’s last blog post…How to get your sleep!

  17. I’m so glad for this reminder about mommy-hood – it’s “comforting” to know my little one isn’t the only child that requires 99.9% of my attention all day long!!

    I have found several things lately that have helped ease my stress during the day, yet still finding that all my tasks are accomplished on time:

    * answering emails or any other correspondence during a naptime or after his bedtime

    * cleaning the kitchen while he’s awake – for some reason, he has no problem playing on his own while I’m in the kitchen, but trying to clean any other room ensues a battle of the “crawlies” all over me! 🙂

    * putting only 1 or 2 things on my “to do” list each day – that way, when I actually do accomplish more then it feels like a “bonus” or that I’m a little more caught up, but I’m also not defeated at 8AM when I look at my “to do” list in the morning!

    * not overscheduling my week. This one is hard to do sometimes, but the week’s that I have to be somewhere or do something outside the home every single day end up being brutal on everyone. Learning to say “no” or “not right now” is a discipline I am thankfully grasping daily. I know it will be more difficult once my guy is in school & has other activities to get involved in, so the better I am at this discipline NOW, I’m hoping it will be easier as the years go by.

    Multi-tasking comes more naturally, but when it comes to interacting with my child, it’s so much less stress to just single-task. The other stuff really does get done, eventually. And I end up learning the fine art of relaxing in the moment when we play together rather than rushing through it, all the while thinking of 12 things that needed to be done 10 minutes ago!

    Thx for YOUR great reminders – especially “we can’t make our children need us less.” Bravo!!

    Vicki’s last blog post…Woe to the weeds

  18. I don’t believe there really is any such thing as multi-tasking. Even though we might think we are doing several things at once, when we look closely we can see that we are only doing one thing at a time. Our thoughts might be jumbled and scattered, but our actions are not. The truth is that as moms, we do a million things one at a time.

    Karen’s last blog post…There is only one thing for you to do

  19. Life is all about balance, isn’t it? That balance can be especially hard to find with small children, but when you do, how rewarding!

    I love your daily docket especially for how it helps me find the balance between single and multi-tasking. As I’m writing out my daily goals, I mark which I think can be done together. I love how the MITs are listed seperately, forcing me to decide which *few* things really have to get done.

    Steph’s last blog post…Menu Plan Monday

  20. I have to concentrate on single-tasking. If I’m reading online and my husband begins talking, I have to very purposefully look away from the computer and look at him, or I won’t listen well enough. When I’m with a person, I’d like to do my best to BE WITH that person.

    My favorite multi-tasking is reading or computerizing while nursing. Hurray for laptops!

    Amberlynn’s last blog post…How to Purge Your Bookshelf

  21. Man this post hits home today, seeing as how I was just writing about my inability to get anything done right now. Single tasking, multitasking, each have their place and I am not doing either very well right now. I think when we can manage single tasking is the best way to do things, because it allows us to do something well. However, as mothers that doesn’t happen to often and a lot of the times when it does I stress over the other things I should be doing instead.

    Great post as usual!

    Lucie’s last blog post…Mommy Meltdowns – How Do You Handle Those Moments?

  22. Yes, I find it to be true.
    I needed the reminder about what my main job is – parenting.

    Jendi’s last blog post…Sunday Poem ~ The Ridiculous Optimist

  23. Great reminder – thanks!

    Mikki Roo’s last blog post…a must have for summer

  24. Multitasking is one of my tried and true strategies, but it does tend to get in the way when it comes to 2 things in particular, for me: parenting and cooking. It’s really tough to design a logo when you’re also trying to help a little one with her coloring. And it’s too easy for me to forget to check on the biscuits in the oven when I’m trying to squeeze in a blog post.

    I think the key is all of us have to know our limits and our prioritize. Making my daughter feel loved and important to me are exponentially more important than blogging, no matter how much I like doing it. I just need a reminder every once in a while 🙂

    Jennae @ Green Your Decor’s last blog post…Pretty Paperie: SusyJack Wall Art and Pencil Cups (+ Giveaway!)

  25. Susan Kohanek says:

    For me lately, it hasn’t been about multi or single tasking. As a neat freak and control freak, it’s been about letting some things go, like maybe during nap-time, I should take a break for myself rather than run around like a crazy person trying to clean everything. Sometimes, that single task I should do is actually nothing. That’s a hard lesson for me to learn, but I don’t have to have the cleanest house on the block and the gourmet dinner of the year on the table right on time. I’m an older mom, 36 years old with an 8 month old, so not being able to do what I want when I want has been an adjustment, one I’m grateful for and blessed to have. But it’s my own little personal challenge. 🙂

    So to multi tasking and single tasking, I think that sometimes, no tasking is just as beneficial. 🙂 Really, though, this is coming from someone who would vacuum every day if I could. 🙂

  26. Have you ever tried to blog/email while watching TV? I once wrote the most ridiculous post that didn’t make any sense while watching the news. And, if the blog turns out okay, I have no idea what was on TV. It’s impossible for me to do two things at once that both take some focus from my brain!

    hair4myprincess’s last blog post…Elastic Pony Crosses With Ribbons

  27. This is a hard, hard, HARD lesson for me to drive into my thick head, and I think you profusely for writing about it. I have a preschooler and a toddler and because I have yet to discover the magic key to getting them to help me pick up, I either spend an inordinate amount of time cleaning after them, or I spend the day pissy because the house looks like a trash heap. Part of the problem, which I aim to address with a call to Goodwill, is that we just have Too Much Stuff. I have already told the kids that we’re going to pare waaaay down on toys and games and they can pick their X favorite ones. The rest go to charity. Honestly, how much do we need? Less, that’s for sure.

    So. Thanks for the wakeup call. Starting today, I’m going to try to concentrate my attention on them instead of the problems I see. Maybe it will lead to them helping me out more, then we all win.

    Northwoods Baby’s last blog post…Must be time for a vacation

  28. When I first opened up the page I laughed , you sleeping on the couch with man still looking at the book. It brought back memories of our two boys, now married and have a child of their own.

    I use to sit for a 4 year old and he did not want to take naps, so his mom had two love seats in the hall room each of us took one. then he got an idea one day. I would sleep on one love seat, he would put the pillow of the other one on me and sleep on me, it worked for a while and then one day I guess I was so sleepy I fell asleep he got up put on the tv finally I woke * don’t know how long I slept* and found him having fun. nothing went wrong. but I did not ever do that again.

    children can be fun. I am now sitting for my grandson and each new day is an adventure.

    It is challenging but fun.

  29. rosesmama says:

    I’m a fulltime single simple mom with a fulltime job, so I do plenty of multitasking. My daughter has learned from when she was very young, though, that there are times when she is not going to get attention unless she is on fire — bill paying, yoga doing, cleaning up the quart of paint that she spilled on the basement floor,etc. Since I don’t divide my attention among partner and siblings, she gets more than her share of attention and loving all the rest of the time, so I don’t think it hurts her to be patient while I do what is vital.

  30. Therese Green says:

    I just found this blog recently and I love it, thank you!

    I have 3 kids under the age of 4 so multi-tasking is pretty much what I do all day long. It is important to focus on one child every once in a while though so I try that as much as possible. There are certainly days where I have gotten nothing done and my husband just says, “Well the kids have been fed and seem happy so I guess I can’t complain :)” I love him!

  31. I usually multitasking so much that could only be classified as constantly distracted. I think for the most part, single-tasking is the best way to finish something and do it well.

    Pinyo’s last blog post…Ebates $10 Sign Up Bonus And Online Shopping Tips

  32. I definitely multi-task too much, sometimes I feel like I have multi-tasking ADD when I can’t seem to focus enough on one thing to actually finish it. I often have to just stop and focus on one thing at a time. Thanks for your helpful & encouraging words. As usual, you hit this one right on the head for me.

    Gidget’s last blog post…DIY Tutorial: Make Your Own Diaper Sprayer

  33. Nice post I try adding parenting to my to do list so that I keep it clearly on my mind!

    Pecos Blue’s last blog post…Here is Michael’s 2nd Grade Classroom!

  34. I agree with you…I do both, single-task and multi-task. Sometimes multi-tasking causes even more problems because I don’t fully complete each task. They are halfway done, leaving me only to have to find time to complete them later. So I’m a huge fan of single-tasking and marking each item off of my list one at a time. However, with a 7 month old, you just do what you can to get by. Like you said, parenting is way more important than getting things done!

    Larra’s last blog post…My First Coupon Giveaway!

  35. “decluttering paperwork while I watch a movie with my husband”



    You might apply a rethink to that one.

    BTW, the link to your survey 404ed in Google Reader and I didn’t find it here (went right to the actual post) So… Where is it?

    Alexander M Zoltai’s last blog post…Can Youth Guide Us ?

  36. so true. i have to balance those things that take my complete attention so i can fit them into the rest of my 10 things at a time day.

    chickadee’s last blog post…11 Years Ago

  37. I’m all about FOCUS. Life is too fragmented, so I’m trying to get back into single-tasking or “doing one thing well” as I like to call it.

    Julie’s last blog post…Near Miss

  38. “decluttering paperwork while I watch a movie with my husband”
    some people I know say they do their ‘books’ or filing while watching desperate housewives… i must be silly but i don’t see how that works…. if you are watching television you need to be watching the screen or you might miss a lot in terms of the visual cues/information…. if you are watching the television conversely you can’t be stapling papers together or you could be going through skin!!! Do you stop/start? I don’t think it would work for me but am interested in hearing how it does work for you just so I understand… I think when I watch television (which I do rarely) I really want to be ‘watching television’…. we pre-record always so we can skip the adds so it’s not like I can put my head down to the cheque book in the ad breaks!!

    Great site by the way …. love it….. 🙂

  39. oops did a typo for my website address in the previous post…. 🙂 shouldn’t have been trying to drink my coffee while typing 🙂

  40. I find myself multi-tasking constantly and often still need more hours in the day. I liked all the points you made and the photo you picked was perfect.

    Hey if you haven’t already entered, this is the last week of the gumball contest. Maybe you could find a way to multi-task counting the gumballs. 😛


  41. Oh how I love this post!

    The GREATEST cause of stress and frustration for me is multitasking. I am really annoyed when MY to-dos get interupted. The best days for me are when I make the focus caring for my little one. Period. And if something really needs doing, like cooking dinner, I try to include him in the task.

  42. This was a great post. Just what I needed to hear. How can I expect my little one to stay focused if I can’t because I am so busy doing so many things at one time. It reminded me of two things… I am a roll model and it is ok to let things go.
    Thank you so much for starting my week out right.

  43. I recently did a post about working on not multitasking, or at least slowing down. I don’t know if I can ever break the habit but I’m working on it.

    Someone commented (forgot who sorry) that the only time they multitask is when one of the tasks can be done on autopilot. I think this is the best way to look at it. Makes perfect sense.

    Monica’s last blog post…Are You Tempted by Chocolate?

  44. As my son is 3 months old, I’m a rookie mom, but single tasking works well for me. My baby can and does interrupt various activities, but when he settles back down, I complete whatever I was doing before. So, if I’m folding laundry, and he wakes up to be fed, after he’s back to sleep, I finish the laundry. (or cleaning the kitchen or whatever the task was).

    This way, I don’t have a dozen half-finished jobs and feel better.

  45. Hi there,

    Thanks for making this very helpful article about single tasking. I’ve been struggling with my work and I really need some inspirational articles such as this. Thanks again!


    Louis Dizon´s last blog post…Michael Jackson – Dead at 50

  46. I love this! I am definately a multi-tasker, but very recently I have learned that there are some things that I have to single-task. I have 6 children (ages 5-15), run two businesses, I’m very involved in our church and in my kids schools, then last year I got a crazy hair-brained idea to start back to college. It’s something that I’ve always wanted to do and this year is the first year that I have all 6 of my kids in school. My youngest is in all day kindergarten so that allows me the time to do my school work (which is all online right now) during the day when it’s quiet!

    I remember when I was a teenager I could listen to music or the tv while studying, but now I just can’t do that. I know it’s because there is already too much going on this head of mine. So I have learned to turn the tv off and occasionally I’ll turn it on to watch Dr. Phil while I’m eating lunch and take a break and then turn it off again.

    For all of you with little ones still, enjoy this time. I miss reading to my older child while nursing the younger one. It seems like it was not very long ago that I was wondering if these days would ever come and now that they are here it’s kinda scary, but exciting too! Sometimes I wish those days were back. Cherish the time with your babies!
    .-= Rachelle Smith´s last blog ..a giveaway! =-.

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