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Multi-tasking: Mars versus Venus

Updated on October 23, 2017
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The author of this article is a mother of four and grandmother to four who is now enjoying her retirement in France.

A Superior Approach?

It has often been suggested that women are better at multi-tasking than men. That may or may not be the case, but beneath that suggestion lies the implication that multi-tasking is a superior way of going about things. To be clear, I'm talking about human multi-tasking here, the ability of someone to perform more than one task at the same time.

Whether men or women are better at it or not is not the issue here. I'm interested in discussing which approach is best. Do multi-taskers just become Jacks of all trades producing mediocre results, running themselves ragged in the process? Would it be better to be a single-tasker, someone who takes on one job at a time and finishes it to perfection?

Individual Approaches

In many household partnerships there is one of each, a multi-tasker and a single-tasker. In my marriage, it just so happened that I was the multi-tasking half of the equation. My husband would take the one-job-at-a-time approach. I found it irritating when he spent a whole day doing one thing and left me to cope with all the other mundane stuff that needed doing. On the other hand, I knew that whatever he was doing would be done extremely well.

Speed Versus Quality

The thing about multi-tasking is that when you take on several jobs at once you have to make a trade-off between the amount of time and effort you allocate to each job and the quality of the outcome.

For example, you might choose to flick a duster around the home rather than polish everything properly because you may have 101 other things to do. You might say to yourself, "I'll polish the furniture properly tomorrow." What you may find though is that tomorrow never comes because the next day brings a whole range of new multi-tasking challenges.

It's Not Fun

When bringing up a family, the ability to multi-task is an essential skill, but constant multi-tasking as a way of life isn't fun. It is frustrating never to have enough time to do something properly and it can be depressing and overwhelming to be continually distracted by other jobs queuing up.

Clever or Not So Clever?

My granddaughter once said something to me that I have never forgotten. I was in my kitchen multi-tasking to my heart's content. As I darted around the kitchen en route from freezer to microwave, she came in from the lounge and announced that the TV wasn't working. With choreographic dexterity, I deftly changed course, turned off all running taps, put my bubbling concoctions on simmer, and went and fixed the problem.

Returning in double quick time, I teased, "There, don't you think Nanny is clever?" Expecting an unqualified 'yes', what I actually got was, "Well, you're quite clever." Surprised, I demanded to know what she meant by quite clever. "Well," she said, "Granddad is cleverer."


Not Sure

Now intellectually, I considered that my husband and I were pretty much on a par, but he was not a multi-taskinger. As far as the home was concerned, I would spend my time running around like a mad thing keeping things ticking over. A typical way for him to spend an afternoon would be to sit on the lawn mower and drive up and down with no fear of any distraction. The finished result would be stunning. There would be nice up-and-down stripes and the grass would be cut all the way up to and around the bottom of the tree trunks.


If he was not at home, I would mow the lawn. I would NOT spend a whole afternoon doing it. I would fit in other jobs such as chainsawing a few logs for the wood burning stove and I'd get the dinner going. There would NOT be nice stripes all over the lawn and I would have missed bits here and there, but it would do. I would NOT have time to stack the logs that I'd cut into a neat pile as I would have managed to fit in a quick nip around the circuit with the dogs, but what was the point in neatly stacking logs when they would be on the fire and burnt soon enough anyway? The meal would be basic, but importantly, the family would get fed.

What People Would Say

When my husband mowed the lawn people would say, "Doesn't that look nice? Isn't your husband clever? How lucky you are to have a husband that can do such a good job!"

When I mowed the lawn, chopped the wood, walked the dogs and cooked the dinner in the same amount of time, nobody noticed.

The Consequences

Because my husband chose only to deal with one thing at a time, he was invariably calm and unruffled, rarely diverted from his chosen course, and produced quality outcomes in most things he did. Furthermore, he had time to stop and relax, safe in the knowledge that I would deal with everything else. He came across as an organised and meticulous person; a steady chap. He was admired.

I, on the other hand, was often worried and stressed and unable to sit still for more than five minutes at a time. My outcomes were make-do and less spectacular, or worse unseen, and I had no spare time. I portrayed an image of chaos, a headless chicken; scatty and distracted. People saw me as disorganised.


So was my granddaughter correct in her assertion that my husband was cleverer than me? Should I have adopted the one-job-at-a-time approach and be admired for the quality of my work? If so, how could everything that needed doing have been done?

I did not become a multi-tasker to gain admiration. I did what I needed to do to keep the household ticking over, earn money, and feed the family. I did not have the luxury of being able to do one thing at a time.

Looking back now, it is clear that my husband and I operated at opposite ends of the spectrum. A better arrangement would have been for me to multi-task less and for him to multi-task more. The ability to multi-task is an essential skill, as is the need to at times carry out a single task meticulously and to perfection, but as with most things in life, a balance needs to be achieved. My husband and I did not achieve that balance.

A New Dawn

It's all in the past now. My children are all grown up, my divorce is imminent and those frantic multi-tasking days are over, thank goodness. Now in my retirement I have the luxury of being able to experience that wonderful, almost meditative state of mind that arises from being totally immersed in something of interest, be it a task or a hobby, to the exclusion of everything else. Who says getting older doesn't have its benefits?


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