Multi-Tasking: Your Greatest Asset and Greatest Liability

Learn to get a lot done and feel happy doing it.

Posted Apr 29, 2014

Imagine leading a life in which you do one thing at a time. When you brush your teeth in the morning, you just do that – no planning about what comes next. And, when you eat breakfast, you just sit and do that – no planning or reading or getting your children ready for the day. For most of us, this can seem like an impossibility. And, in fact, it’s not always desirable to live that way. Yet, the almost constant multi-tasking we do is also a problem, which is clear from the stress, unhappiness, and health problems that it often produces.

A preferable way to live life is one in which you strike a balance. For instance, imagine a life in which you often give your full attention to the task at hand, but also choose to multi-task when it effectively enables you to complete a number of responsibilities. At home, you do laundry while cleaning the house and singing to some music. At work, you hash out details of a project with colleagues and occasionally check for important emails, all while eating lunch.  But, you also stop this juggling and focus solely on a task that really requires your full attention. You might decide to listen to a friend or child in distress, give yourself over to regular exercise, or just appreciate the sunshine (particularly at a time when you seem to be too caught up in your work or stress). In this alternate reality where you live your life according to your interests and values, you will likely be engaged in focused attention much more often.

You can attain this kind of balance by learning to check in with yourself throughout each day. Ask yourself: How am I feeling? Am I living today in accordance with my values and priorities? Am I multi-tasking so much that it’s causing the following:

  • Interfering with my ability to perform tasks (by causing such stress and becoming overwhelming)
  • Taking over my life, leaving me little or no time to enjoy my life
  • Becoming such a priority that I don’t feel entitled to take care of myself (i.e. eat healthy, exercise, get sufficient sleep)
  • Creating health problems (i.e. hypertension)
  • Creating anxiety
  • Making me depressed

If the answers to these questions reflect that you are having a problem with what you are doing, choose to reassess your current focus. Ask yourself:

  • What am I feeling or experiencing that’s a problem?
  • How much of a problem is it? Is it wise for me to attend to this now?
  • What are my priorities for today? Do I need to redefine my priorities for today?
  • Is there something that would be wise for me to take off my to-do list for today?
  • Is there something that would be wise (especially in the big picture) for me to add to my to-do list for today? (i.e. go for walk, take a bath, exercise, sit down to a leisurely meal)

If you chronically overdo multi-tasking, then it would be wise for you to sit back and evaluate this tendency. Consider the effects that it is having on your life.

  • How is it affecting you emotionally?
  • How is it affecting your health?
  • How is it affecting your relationships? (especially with those you love)
  • How is it affecting your work?
  • Are the benefits of multi-tasking worth the downsides of it?

Depending on your answers to these questions, think about developing new “rules” for when it is important not to multi-task. Think about the priorities in your life and make sure you are giving them your full attention. For instance, if your friendships are important to you, consider giving your friends more time or more full attention when you are with them. You might also consider the importance of developing a healthier diet or exercising regularly.

Bottom line: This is your life. Understandably, you want to make the most of it. Just remember that sometimes stopping to smell the roses is as important as – or even more important than – getting all your stuff done.

Leslie Becker-Phelps, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice and is on the medical staff at Somerset Medical Center in Somerville, NJ. She also writes a blog for WebMD (The Art of Relationships) and is the relationship expert on WebMD’s Relationships and Coping Community.

Dr. Becker-Phelps is also the author of Insecure in Love.

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Making Change blog posts are for general educational purposes only. They may or may not be relevant for your particular situation; and they should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional assistance.

Personal change through compassionate self-awareness