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Can Multitasking Ruin Your Work Life Balance?

Dec 4, 2007
When my daughter was very young, she would wander into my office and want to chatter, see what I was doing and generally get my undivided attention. In the early days I tried to multitask and distract her while I continued to write that very important letter, or finish the project I was working on. Then I would feel guilty that I was wasting our precious time together on work stuff when I could be enjoying my time with her. I swear I could hear the song 'Cat's in The Cradle' coming from somewhere in the room!
So I learned how to 'swap hats' in an instant. From solopreneur to dad in 3 seconds flat. And I learned how to go back from dad to solopreneur in the same amount of time.

The issue is contamination of one context to another. That's tech jargon. What it really means is you can't fully do two things at the same time. Yes, you can fool yourself that you can juggle talking to young children while writing emails, reports etc - but they know the truth. If you aren't fully present, you're not really listening to them with heart and mind. And that's what they want, nay, demand. Try pretending and they will just hang around longer until they get their full measure of you. That's if you're lucky. If you're unlucky they leave unsatisfied and feeling less worthy about themselves. That thought horrified me.

Here's what I learned to do.
1. Decide what my priority was at that moment in time.
2. Turn up (be present) or negotiate

Let us say that my office activity wasn't time sensitive and I could take 5-10 minutes out to play and be with my daughter. I would make a mental bookmark of where I was at in the project and then mentally swap hats from project manager to dad. Part of the hat swapping process was the decision to be with my daughter for the next 5, 10 or 15 minutes. I found from experience this was about all the time she wanted before going onto other adventures.

Another crucial part of this equation was how 'present' I was during this 5 - 15 minutes. When I was fully there, 10 minutes was the average time she needed from me. If I was half present and my mind was sneaking back to my project, she would want at least 20 minutes of my time. Hmmm. So I learned another life lesson from my daughter. 'Be where you are.'

On occasion I did have time pressures that meant it was important to focus on the project I was involved in. In those cases I would negotiate with her. Even when as a youngster she could appreciate the concept of sharing and that you don't get everything that you want on demand.

If I made a promise that after finishing the report or project, I would take her to the park, beach, go for a walk; she would be happy and wander off to some other adventure until the promised time. Of course, I would honour that promise otherwise she would learn not to trust me.

Let's get specific and break the process down into chucks.

To shut off from work, you need to incorporate a ritual that separates work life from home life. The ritual helps you to define one context from another. The trouble is when we contaminate one context with another. My ritual was values based i.e. on my values around being a good dad and a solopreneur. Both were important for me and were worth honouring. I also understand and I can't fully succeed at both at the same time. They had to be treated as separate activities. When I decided which was appropriate at any given time, I would put on the appropriate hat. This was a crucial part of the ritual. Even thought the hat was imaginary it still had real implications.

When I had my 'dad' hat on, I listened fully to my daughter and was present emotionally was well as physically. I left my work on the desk knowing it would still be there when I returned and that it would only take a moment to get my head back into the project. I didn't have guilt feelings no matter which hat I was wearing because I knew I would be getting back to the other in a predictable negotiated amount of time.

When I switched back to 'solopreneur' I felt happy that I was being a good dad and the song 'Cats in the Cradle' was no longer playing in my head. Now I could finish the project and be fully present whilst doing so.

So, go experiment, have fun...and notice the difference in your effectiveness and the connectedness in your family.
About the Author
Bill Lee-Emery is a Work Life Balance Coach who works specifically with Entrepreneurs, Executives and Senior Managers. You can read more tips here http://www.theworklifebalancecoach.com/Free_Work_Life_Balance_Tips.html or join one of his coaching programs.
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