Is it time to call BS on women and multitasking? 

Anne Hathaway, The Devil Wears Prada

The media is convinced that women are fantastic "multitaskers". But is it just a false cure for the "busyness" epidemic? 

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

Y'know the "busy" thing? Viv Groskop calls it "competitive busyness", and I am starting to become guilty of it. 

Either it's: 

"Do you want to come to my birthday lunch?" 
"Can't! Busy!" 

Or it's: 

"I haven't seen you since March, what's up?" 
"I know! Sorry! I'm the worst! Busy!"

Or sometimes:

"You haven't said a word to anyone all day, would you like us to refill your water bowl?"

If "busy" is the gangrenous limb that keeps me from having a rich and full life, then "multitasking" is the snake oil I keep buying to make it better. I need to buy a birthday present for my sister, hit a deadline and email my landlord about the entirely fictional dishwasher she promised months ago? No problem: I'll just open Interflora in one tab, Curry's in the other, and briefly scan Google to see if it can help with whatever subject I'm writing about. Look at me! I'm multitasking! I'm doing what women are good at, which is doing lots and lots of things at once. This is what they meant in the 1980's when they said women COULD have it all! 

Except, no. Before you know it I'm giving my sister a dishwasher for her birthday and emailing my landlord the Wikipedia entry for Hiroshima. "I am crap at multitasking," I think. "I'm not a proper woman at all." Meanwhile, I envy my boyfriend's clean, ordered mind. "Sorry, didn't see your text," he'll say pleasantly, nine hours after the fact. "I had my head in this project." 

We're expected to do more, and you can't help but wonder if there's a link between our "multitasking" and the fact that we're more likely to suffer from anxiety than men

But what if the multitasking thing is just plain bullshit? According to an article in the Harvard Business Review, the media seems to have a marked interest in proving that women are fantastic multitaskers. For example, a recent study postulated that women have more neural connections between the right and left hand side of their brains, and this was immediately interpreted by the Daily Mail as being the "proof" that women are "hard-wired" to multitask. When really, that wasn't the point or the outcome of the study at all. 

The fact is, people who multitask the most are statistically the worst at it. Their brains take longer to commit to a new task than people who have been focusing on one task for a long time. Focus is the key word in all of this, and it's been proven that direct focus on a job is both psychologically better for you and more productive for your work. 

So why do we troublesome women insist on this multitasking myth? It's not because we bloody love doing five jobs to a mediocre level than one to an excellent standard – it's because we feel pressured to get those five jobs done. Today, if possible. And maybe get your brows tinted while you're at it. 

We're expected to do more, and you can't help but wonder if there's a link between our "multitasking" and the fact that we're more likely to suffer from anxiety than men. We worry about what's expected of us. We worry if we're needed too much, and we worry if we're not needed enough. If nobody needs you, why would they marry you?  If nobody needs you, then why would they promote you after you come back from maternity leave? And so we keep on swimming, thrashing and moving all our limbs at once rather than keeping a smooth breast stroke. 

Today, declare yourself crap at multitasking. Say it out loud. Say "I am a crap multitasker". Watch the clouds part and the sun stream through. You now live in a world where people do one thing at a time, and it feels great. 


Anne Hathaway, The Devil Wears Prada
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