Athena's Head

On Writing, Parenting, and Pop-Mom Culture

Martha Nichols

Martha Nichols
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA
March 18
Editor in Chief
Talking Writing
I am Editor in Chief of Talking Writing, an online literary magazine. I'm also a contributing editor at the Women's Review of Books and a freelance journalist in the Boston area. Martha on Twitter: (I cross-post most OS entries on my website Athena's Head. I am not paid a cent for any reviews or product references—these opinions are mine alone.)


JUNE 7, 2012 9:48AM

My Crusade Against Multitasking

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First off, it’s clear that I don’t practice what I’m about to preach. I have a ten-year-old son, failing parents who live across the country, an extroverted husband who juggles more than I do. Of course I multitask. Did I mention that I run an online magazine? I have to multitask every day, every hour, sometimes every minute.

But I’m sick of it. Not of the work I do or my writing or my family or friends or my son’s school or the City of Cambridge, Massachusetts, or my country or the universe. Yet I am tired of mentally skipping along the surface, of having my attention flutter about like a butterfly attracted by the brightest flower.

I’ve begun to question the shrugging acceptance of all the busyness in American life. Maybe it’s normal. Maybe Americans have always worried about falling behind or out of the loop—be it the technology loop, the college loop, the fancy car loop, the keeping-up-with-the-Jones’s loop.

But why should that feel normal? And is it good that it does?

My family spent this past spring in Singapore, away from many of our usual distractions. Singapore itself is a busy place, dominated by the work ethic of its majority Chinese population. If we’d been permanent residents, we would have sunk right back into the usual overlapping networks of work and school and social obligations. However, we were only there four months, and in that time, we all found a sweet family haven from overscheduling.

Suddenly I was reading novels again. I had time to stare into space in the early mornings without my thoughts galloping along at a fevered pace. I had time to let the grief over my aunt’s death in January lodge in my body and soul, to let it shake me, to pull forth memories.

I spent much more time with my husband and son. We visited plenty of museums and attractions, but my son and I, in particular, did a lot of hanging out together with no set agenda. We rode the subways all over the island, reading our books, watching everyone else thumb texts or download email on smartphones. My son devoured the entire Fablehaven series in weeks. I became the “slow” parent I’ve always longed to be.

In reality, I’m also a hopped-up over-achiever; I’ve never liked failing or falling behind. But back in Cambridge, what I notice now are far more competing demands on my time and—more to the point—the expectation that communication happens 24/7. It makes me want to fall so far out of the loop that I have no idea how to climb back on.

Technology-wise, there’s no need to be out of touch with anybody. But after spending a few months halfway around the world, I know there are good reasons to be unavailable, whether it’s because of a 12-hour time difference or because you're taking a break from your normal work life.

Friends and I have long joked about wishing time were a rubber band, one that could be pulled and stretched to fit any shape. But simply getting more hours in the day implies that you get to do more—and I don’t want to do more. I didn’t want to do more in Singapore. I wanted to pay full attention to what I was already seeing and doing.

The question, of course, is how to recreate a different pace and ability to focus back home. Some of what I’m complaining about can’t be changed right now. It has to do with being middle-aged and caught between raising a child and my elderly parents, with financial demands.

Still, I’m trying to read in the morning before I plonk myself in front of a computer. Sometimes I write in my private journal. I’ve resolved not to check my email until I’ve done two hours of writing.

My husband and I are limiting our son’s screen time to an hour a day—and his use of the iPad, that tool of the multitasking devil—to only a few days a week. I’ve asked my husband not to check his smartphone while we’re eating dinner (sometimes he grumblingly complies). I’ve asked him and my son not to talk at me simultaneously. We're working on taking conversational turns.

Small changes, yes? And probably doomed.

Still, it's my personal crusade against multitasking. I use "crusade" partly as a joke but also because of its many resonances. As a spiritual mission, I’ve already failed the first tests (must check my email RIGHT NOW! must post to this blog!), and maybe I’ll never find my gleaming grail.

But, ye few good people of faith, I say unto you: Let the journey set you free.

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Anyone who thinks multi-tasking is a good idea should be forced to ride with someone trying to drive a car while texting.
Oh, and one more thing -- forgive my being so presumptuous, but have you considered calling your blog Martha's Vineyard?
Well, I'd say there are levels to multi-tasking. I read while on my treadmill. I think of it as expanding my brain while reducing my butt. Nothing wrong with pairing something you like (reading) with something you don't (exercising) to achieve the goal of making the bad thing tolerable. But I get your point. It shouldn't be frantic, necessary, a ramping drive toward MAKING THE MOST! If you feel yourself going all-caps...ease off the gas!

"I wanted to pay full attention to what I was already seeing and doing."

That's the key. To keep an eye, an ear, even a nose on the moment at hand. Not easy. Must be taken in little steps, as you describe here. No need to measure "progress." Just pay attention. It's what you describe doing with your son. Will he remember Singapore's "attractions"? Not as much as he'll remember your presence next to him, doing nothing but being there with him.
Amen back! Yes, Jeremiah, I'm pretty sure that my son will remember most I that he and I had goofy adventures--with monkeys, in food courts, on the subways--but the details matter less than the fact we shared them.

Bell: I do agree about levels of multitasking. I love having a full creative life, and to some extent that always means operating on many levels. But you're so right about that ALL CAPS EXISTENCE -- or the feeling that one must get the most out of every single second, except...what? The perils of the ALL CAPS EXISTENCE felt very obvious to me when we reentered our new lives a few weeks ago.

And Tom: Martha's Vineyard! Yes, one of my first ideas for a blog title, but then I realized that I didn't want people showing up expecting tourist insights or promotions about the actual Vineyard.
This is one of the few perks to being unemployed: realizing how much texture is lost to multi-tasking and the unhealthy hustle of a "job" only you believe will be there for you in the end. Since when did "focus" become a bad word, anyway? I discovered when I returned to school how damaged my concentration skills had become by years of mental interruption. I have fought my way back, found my Muse, and have no intention of becoming that stressed out again. Viva la revolucion!
Yea! I have traded in watching TV for writing fiction and when I'm done I feel satisfied, challenged, invigorated, instead of just tired and bored. This is completely true, what you say.