I read a piece of psychology research on multi-tasking claiming people who multi-tasked were unlikely to perform as well as someone focused on a single piece of work. Other commentary has often said there is a genetic predisposition to multi-tasking contending that women are much better at it. I am unsure of both contentions and as it’s Father’s Day though I would discuss this in relation to being a father.
Just to be clear I am not saying being a father per se makes you a good multi-tasker. This would be incompatible with my accompanying contention that multi-tasking is primarily a learnt rather than a genetic phenomenon. Rather the experience of my particular fatherhood, coupled with the roles I played at work and elsewhere developed my multi-tasking skill set. I was not, as few are, a natural multi-tasker though I have always from a young age enjoyed the variety that life throws at you. So maybe I had an inclination but the circumstances of my life enabled, if not forced me, to hone these skills.
I was holding a joint appointment at the beginning of the 1980s needing me to work within organisational structures of two very different agencies – the local probation service and the local polytechnic. I could literally walk between my two offices and shift my mindset from one to the other. But I never had to hold them together at the same time so the two tasks were managed separately. This all changed in 1985. I became a father in 1981 and again in 1983. Life was full and hectic but became demanding when just before Christmas I became a single parent. Suddenly responsibility for two young children cut across everything else.
I still remember taking my daughter upstairs to her bedroom and emptying the drawers of all her clothes to find out what she had, what she liked, what she needed. For the first time I had to know the details of every need of my children. It was all encompassing although fun too as my daughter H told me what she liked and what she wanted, a mind of her own at just 4. I still remember my mind spinning with the responsibility and after Christmas to return to my jobs, the national work I did for the union and everything else I was engaged in. These are the circumstances in which you sink or swim and over time I think I began to swim. A work colleague told me when I was contemplating going part-time to cope with all this, to continue and see how far I could adapt. I took his advice and gradually, with some adjustment, managed to keep all these balls in the air. Wherever I was the children were on my mind, but I could compartmentalise when dealing with a particular issue such as giving a lecture. In fact my energy came from the concentration of adrenalin when I was involved in performance tasks at work such as lectures, seminars etc. Routinely I undertook a number of very different tasks and gradually dealt with this variety with strategies which worked.
A typical day would illustrate this: I would be awake (or woken by one of my children) around 6.30 am. Wash, dressed and breakfasted them I collected my work stuff and when my child minder arrived off I went to work. As they got older I would drop them at school and my child minder would pick them up. I would then do a full day balancing student demands, colleague meetings, lectures, moving from one to another, travelling to London, thinking about what to have for tea, remembering the dental appointment in two days time, admin, lunch, coffee etc etc as the day rolled forward without a pause. I would aim to be home around 6 pm, switch into children mode, have tea, deal with their ups and downs, and then begin the long haul to bedtime. Both were reluctant sleepers though H worse then my son, J. It would often take till turned 9 or even 10 on a bad night though reading stories, bath time and playing was also good bonding time. At 10 I would start work on tasks I had not got around to during the day. Cleaning, tidying round and then work-related stuff, marking essays, preparing lectures, checking emails as computerisation emerged, and so on. I could work until 2 am. The downside of having so much in my head was that I could not go straight to bed.
I remembered when I had been a student doing three day exams where you had to decide when, or if, you slept at all. I would try to finish one essay and go to bed. But my head was full of that essay and the next one and so a friend across the way suggested we play chess. So even though I was tired i was able to clear my mind and then settle for just a few hours sleep. I remembered this and although I was already a soap watcher I made sure i recorded the soaps early evening whilst sorting out the children. Once I had finished my work I always watched the soaps and relaxed and then went to bed, for it all to start again.
I had to multi-task to cope, I had to change from one situation to another quickly whilst holding other stuff in my mind. I became used to doing that and did not find that my effectiveness was reduced. I coped with the tensions in my head and tried to give full attention to whoever was in front of me. Being a single parent Dad was and is a great privilege and a wonderful experience. I love my children dearly and loved being their primary carer. Our relationship remains very close and so I can celebrate Father’s Day and feel it was a job well done.
My postscript would be that these multi-tasking skills honed in my role in fatherhood later on made me an approachable manager. I think one of the undersold parts of management is being a good multi-tasker. Whatever project you were working on you would have to stop if a worker needed advice. Teams have little crises all the time and I always kept my door open. My team wandered in and expected me to give them undivided attention, know what they were talking about instantly, and give them the time they needed. Interestingly this was not always reciprocated. One of my best workers hated being interrupted. Her work role had always been on single projects and she was good, very good. But if she was focused on a project ask her a question on something else and you got a withering look. Multi-tasking had not been part of her work or life and she did not like to change tack. We learnt to work together very well over time.
So it’s Father’s Day today, and, of the many things that my children have brought me, the ability to multi-task and remain effective and able to cope is one of them. They won’t know this as for them my attention had to be total. But it was a constant challenge. When we went on holiday we went for 3/4 weeks which gave me time to relax, get out of work mode and just be myself as a father but that is for another blog.
My week in photos