Multitasking is the norm for mums – but it’s become a silent killer for me

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I’ve always thought of myself as a champion multitasker. I’m definitely in the top tier of being excellent at it – one study has found just 2.5 per cent of people can do it effectively. But I’ve also had enough of it. It’s a silent killer. When you put your child’s swimming costume into the oven at breakfast time, you know something has seriously gone amiss.

I don’t care if it’s labelled “multitasking”, “rapid task switching”, or “chronic media-multitasking”– it’s all the same to me. It’s making me vacant. I find myself staring out of the window thinking, “What the hell was I just trying to do?” My eyes hurt. I watch TV while scrolling Instagram and reading the headlines on my phone, something known as “media multitasking”. I’ve got brain fog – and it’s not menopausal. My mind can’t process the information coming at me from all directions.

According to research, multitasking is bad for our health – it causes stress and can rewire the brain negatively. It can also make us less intelligent – a study from the University of London found that women experienced a 5 per cent dip in IQ when multitasking, compared to a 15 per cent drop in men. And while we think multitasking is making us more efficient, it isn’t. Research by the American Psychological Association found that the habit can decrease productivity by a staggering 40 per cent.

Mindless eating is also linked to media multitasking: people swallow air while munching food, leading to an increase in symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome. It can lead to overeating, too. A study, published in the journal Brain Imaging and Behaviour, found that people who media-multitask are more likely to eat high-calorie foods – and it lowers self-control.

Women, however, are no better at multitasking than men, according to a 2019 study conducted by two university psychologists in Germany and published in the journal PLOS One. Multitasking is also one of the causes of “mum rage”, according to Minna Dubin, the American author of 2023’s Mum Rage: The Everyday Crisis of Modern Motherhood.

“To multitask is another way of saying to overwork,” says Dubin. “Overwork eventually leads to overwhelm, which is one of the causes of mum rage.” When a mother rages, she tells me, it looks like a sudden explosion. “But in actuality, it has been building imperceptibly over days, weeks, even months, growing with repeated aggravations and stress.” This is partly because mothers, she says, are “forced” into multitasking.

“Mums become expert multitaskers because they are abandoned by society and often their own families, and coerced into doing an untenable amount of work by themselves,” she tells me. “In a society that views mothers as the primary parent, doesn’t offer parents enough structural support, and doesn’t believe that raising the next generation should be a community endeavour – what choice do mothers have?”

In a society that views mothers as the primary parent, doesn’t offer parents enough structural support, and doesn’t believe that raising the next generation should be a community endeavour – what choice do mothers have?

Minna Dubin, author of ‘Mum Rage’

Dr Faye Begeti, aka The Brain Doctor on Instagram and author of 2024’s The Phone Fix: The Brain-Focused Guide to Building Healthy Digital Habits and Breaking Bad Ones, is a neuroscientist and neurology doctor. She says that when trying to do two complex tasks simultaneously, the brain engages in a process called “attention-switching” – rapidly shifting focus from one task to another. “This isn’t inherently bad for our health,” she tells me, “but it can be cognitively exhausting, which explains why parents often feel mentally drained.”

This state of mental exhaustion, which she calls “low power mode” – as it is similar to the state our devices enter to conserve power – leads to decreased focus, increased procrastination, and a higher likelihood of falling into bad habits. “It also impairs emotion regulation, making parents in ‘low power mode’ more irritable. By the end of the day, an exhausted parent may only have the energy to scroll through their phone or binge-watch TV.”

Dr Begeti adds that while multitasking becomes essential for parents because their brains must constantly shift attention to monitor and protect their children, the best way to replenish our mental energy and avoid “low power mode” is taking plenty of mental breaks and rest periods – beyond just sleep. “However,” she adds, “not all parents have the luxury of time or resources to do so.” In an attempt to have some “me time”, people may stay up late, cutting into their sleep – in a phenomenon known as “sleep procrastination” – she explains. “Good sleep is a cornerstone of good brain health.”

Dr Aditi Nerurkar, a Harvard stress expert and author of 2024’s The 5 Resets, says there is another way. “It’s called monotasking,” she says, joyfully. She warns that it takes time, though – up to eight weeks to train the brain to focus on one thing at a time by setting a timer and focusing on one task for five minutes, then taking a one-minute break, before extending the time intervals.

‘Between our devices and email systems, our laptops and Wi-Fi, we are asking our bodies to go places they have never ever been before... to be contactable 24/7’

‘Between our devices and email systems, our laptops and Wi-Fi, we are asking our bodies to go places they have never ever been before… to be contactable 24/7’ (iStock)

Dr Nerurkar warns me that multitasking impacts the prefrontal cortex – it’s an area of the brain that is responsible for cognition, memory, attention, and complex problem-solving. That’s why monotasking with “brain breaks” is essential to recalibrate the stress response and maintain, or likely enhance productivity. In moments of feeling overwhelmed, she tells me to use the three-second reset: “Stop, breath, be.” Or else a technique called “sticky feet” that is good for parents on the go – “essentially you keep your mind where your feet are”. She adds: “Anxiety is a future-focused emotion. These techniques get you out of ‘what if’ thinking.”

Dr Libby Weaver, a nutritional biochemist and author of Rushing Woman’s Syndrome, says women still get a rough deal. Research shows that if a woman and man both work full-time and have one child, she does twice the amount of housework and three times the amount of childcare he does.

This is at a great cost to women’s health. “The perceived need to rush, whether a woman displays it on the outside or keeps it under wraps, is changing the face of women’s health as we know it in such a detrimental way,” she says. “Sex hormone-based health problems such as very heavy and painful periods, ‘unexplained’ infertility and debilitating menopause transitions, not to mention general exhaustion, have never been greater. The role of stress in this is undeniable when you look at both the body’s chemistry and the scientific research.”

Multitasking took off with the advent of portable devices – from our mobile phones in the Nineties to the smartphones we carry now – she says. “Between our devices and email systems, our laptops and wifi, we are asking our bodies to go places they have never ever been before… to be contactable 24/7.”

Awareness, she says, is the first step to recovery. “While it may feel like we don’t, we do always have a choice.” Retiring the rush doesn’t even have to mean doing less, either. “It’s more about getting to the heart of what is driving you to feel like everything needs to be done with immense pressure and urgency.”

I’m committed to giving it a go: I want to transform my relationship to stress. I’ve set my timer. I’m a monotasking mum. Let’s just hope nothing unexpected happens.

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