Being a Parent Means Multitasking is a Way of Life

My truth about multitasking is a story of dread and acceptance.  I experience dread because I often feel a resistance to sit down and work when I know that I am going to get distracted or pulled away from what I am working on. At the same time, I try and embrace radical acceptance because even though I think I would prefer an uninterrupted workflow, I know that’s just not going to happen, so I’d be better off just going with the flow.  There are parts of my day that I am able to handle without dividing my attention, and then there are others where I just can’t.  I’ve been exercising mindfulness so that I can gain a better understanding of how I am and how I let small distractions turn into big ones that sometimes rule my entire day. In the end, I believe that my life wouldn’t be the same without multitasking–I don’t think I could be a student right now without it! I realize that begins to sound like I am painting with a broad brush, so let me give you some examples of how I experience multitasking day in and day out.

Lilah joins me at the LAR studio when I have got to be at work, but she can’t go to school. I’m fortunate my program is accommodating and understanding. (Of course if she were disruptive, I wouldn’t put my peers or students through that, but she’s a chill, pleasant, and curious little girl–a much better daughter than I deserve!)


Morning Routine

I used to be able to get up, get ready, and get out the front door in 45 minutes. Now, it takes me no less than 90 minutes, usually 2 hours. From the time I get up til the time I get in the car to head to Blacksburg, my morning is about multitasking. Being a student with a baby, there is a lot that goes into getting both of us ready to go in the morning. With a busy baby, it’s even more challenging. Every step of the way, I am keeping some of my brainpower in reserve to watch her and to help me think about what we have to do next to be ready to go.

On most mornings, I wake up to the sound of my daughter, Lilah, calling me from her crib across the hall. Muscle memory allows me to fly out of bed in a flourish, and I propel myself into her room to greet her good morning and begin caring for her needs, which usually includes singing a song, changing a diaper, and grabbing the bottle(s) from last night to take downstairs to the sink.

Downstairs in the kitchen, I pour myself some coffee, feed Lilah some breakfast, and begin packing my lunch. Somewhere between buckling her into the high chair and combing cheese grits out of her hair, I’ve managed to drink half a cup of coffee, made a plain peanut butter sandwich, and put it and two pieces of fruit into my lunch box.

Then the two of us are back upstairs and I, still in my pajamas and house robe, begin helping her into an outfit and fixing her hair for the day. Getting her ready usually involves reading a book or engaging in some other activity like the Put-the-Clothes-Back-in-the-Drawer-Game which happens as a result of her helping me pick out something for to wear for that day. Sometimes, I don’t get her clothes picked up and put back until it’s bedtime and we are in her room at the end of the day looking for pajamas.

It seems like there are endless distractions as she wants to play and I am trying to stay on schedule. Like I said, I usually give in to the requests for engagement–because this time with her is precious and fleeting, and I’d rather live with a little more stress if it means that I made time to spend with her despite everything I felt like I had to do at the time. And somewhere in the middle of all of this, I am sending and receiving text messages from far away family of cheerful greetings, good mornings, and sharing pictures of the little one.

After I get her ready, then it’s my turn to get dressed and ready for school. I do my best to make myself presentable–all the while I’m keeping one eye on Lilah as she toddles around the room, a trail of toys and random objects in her wake. Sometimes before I can finish putting on makeup or braiding my hair, she communicates that she is sleep, and insists on being put down for a nap. So, I stop what I’m doing and take her to her room to rock, relax, and lay her down for a few precious minutes while I finish my getting ready routine. I’ve found that to be much faster (and more peaceful) than trying to navigate around a baby that wants your undivided attention.

If I’m lucky, she will nap in the morning. When she does, I’m in high-gear trying to get everything that she and I need for the day pulled together and put into the car. I try to make us so ready for the day that all I have to do is get her up and we are ready to go. From the time I leave my house, it takes about 45 minutes to get from home to daycare, to campus, and to my office. That time isn’t totally spent driving. At daycare, it takes time to get her checked in and I always anticipate a 10 minute walk for when I get to campus each morning. During the drive, I am scarfing down a fold-over, drinking coffee, and trying to catch a little bit of the news. During my walk, I am texting with family and checking on my project’s Twitter and Instagram. It never stops. But I try to stop and notice the scenery around me and take time to appreciate the world. Judging by how fast the last decade seemed to fly by, I anticipate the one I’m in now to go by just as fast if not faster. Is multitasking stealing my time and warping my memory?

Time in the Lab

My time in the office is my most productive time of day. Here, I do everything in my power to stay on top of my classes, readings, and course work. But I find that my time in the lab is often dominated by social interaction, so even though it is my “quiet space” to work, if my office-mates are in, we sometimes work in silence, but usually there is some kind of discussion happening in our space. I am always being asked to proofread, asked questions about customs and manners here, and venting with my friends.

Others may feel differently about their lab time–they may say that they prefer it to be silent so that more work can be accomplished, but I tend to disagree. I think the social interaction is good for all of us and it is nice to have a chance to talk to your cohort. In my office, we are always talking about research, methods, upcoming assignments, and ideas. It’s great to have like-minded people to share your work space with. Without the “distractions” from my colleagues, I don’t know that I would have another opportunity quite like it to share and collaborate with other graduate students.

Besides, all of us bring headphones and we use them to help ourselves tune into our work. One girl also brings ear plugs so if she wants, she can completely tune out noisy distractions while she reads and writes. We all understand that our lab is a place where work happens, but it’s also a space for discussion as well.

Blogging/Homework in General

I think I’ve said before that I enjoy blogging. The act of getting my thoughts out of my head and molded into a composition is extremely satisfying for me. But it’s not without it’s distractions and moments of multitasking–some are good, others are bad. An example of something that I would consider “good” multitasking is when I have to hold my daughter in my lap (away from the computer so she doesn’t slap the keyboard), and feed her pieces of shredded cheddar cheese and draw on scratch paper while I either listen to podcasts or read articles and posts. It comes in spurts–every couple of minutes I am pulled away from my task to tend to my daughter’s needs or some other activity that just won’t seem to wait. But I consider this “good” because I am getting some interaction with Lilah, she knows that I am busy working but not too busy to hold her and let her play (very) near me.

An example of a “bad” distraction would be me sitting here to read and write, yet I’ve somehow my attention has been sucked into my smart phone. Earlier, I was posting about Studio In-Progress updates for the class/project I am a research assistant for. Part of this means that after completing the post, I sign into Instagram and Twitter to share the news and to get our post “out there” so that others can potentially find it. I will be successful at getting the posts made… but then it seems like I blink and 20 more minutes have gone by and I am still browsing! Granted, I often defend this distracted time because I have gotten lost on Twitter looking at science news stories and stories about research– so at least I’m learning something… but I’m also burning up valuable time that should go to producing work for upcoming deadlines.

Writing this blog took me several more hours than it probably should have because of multitasking. I’ve been revising and adding to it for 4 hours now–not continuously, but in spurts because my parenting duties keep trumping the academic ones. In that time, I have done the bedtime routine with my little one, and have been back upstairs 4 times to feed her again and soothe her back to sleep. (I think she’s going through a growth spurt!) It’s hell, especially at this hour, but I wouldn’t change it for the world.

I have mixed feelings about multi-tasking. There was a time in my life where I honestly felt like multitasking made me better at the things I was doing… but after the readings this week, I’m not so sure that is the case. Another thing I’ve been thinking about is a sentiment that I noticed in Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid” piece: I have had the growing feeling over the last handful of years that my brain doesn’t quite work like it used to and it’s hard to put my finger on what exactly that means. I don’t feel dumber, but I do feel like there are certain kinds of (“simple”) activities that I have to really work to stop and think about before I can be successful at them. Activities and tasks that could be similar to what the NPR Morning Edition crew discussed in their “Think You’re Multitasking? Think again” podcast.

I may not be the best about multitasking and managing distractions, but I’m doing my best. I’m in a stage of my life right now where multitasking is as “normal” a part of my day as any other part of the routine. I’ve had to adjust my whole way of being to make room for a growing family and I feel privileged that I get to live in this way. At the same time, I recognize that a lot of the things I choose to do while multitasking are not good or healthy. Because of this, I have been taking breaks from Facebook (completely deleting it off my phone and refusing to visit the webpage via computer browser) so that I can get back some of that time that I was wasting.

So while I stay plugged in much of the time, I am beginning to really come around to this idea of unplugging from everything. I want my working hours to be as meaningful as they can possibly be. I want my home life and time spent with my family to be as meaningful as it can possibly be. For me to accomplish this, I am incorporating new practices into my routine and weeding out the distractions that rob me of my productivity and meaningful engagement.

These were all of the articles I read before composing this piece. They all rang true to me in different ways. Sometimes, I find myself being grateful for technology; other times I am stressed beyond belief and all I want to do is escape to the woods for a week of respite. I think the key to anything in this world is moderation–and when you find yourself multitasking to the point where it’s actually getting in the way of being productive, well, then maybe it’s time to consider making a change.

Bilton, N. (2013). “The Science Author Clive Thompson Does Not Think Tech Is Ruining Your Mind.” Bits: Business, Innovation, Technology, Society. The New York Times, online.

Carr, N. (2008). “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet is doing to our brains.” The Atlantic, online.

Gorlick, A. “Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows.

NPR. (2008). “Think You’re Multitasking? Think Again.” Research News on Morning Edition, podcast online.

Taylor, J. (2011). “Technology: Myth of Multitasking. Is multitasking really more efficient?” Psychology Today, online.



  • Amy Hermundstad says:

    Sara – Thank you so much for your post and for sharing your experiences! When describing the downsides of multitasking, we often talk about the time lost when switching between different tasks. But sometimes if we don’t switch to that different task when the opportunity is there, we may miss out on something really important like spending time with family and discussions with colleagues (as you describe in some of your daily activities). This is something that I have struggled with because I can become so focused on one task that I tend to lose sight of everything else. But I think being aware and intentional when switching tasks and acknowledging when something is more of a negative distraction is really important.

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Hi Amy,
      Thanks for reading my blog this week. I appreciate your thoughtful comment. We all already know that graduate school is demanding, and since there are just 24 hours in the day, we have to work with what we’ve got. Reading over my post again, I was a little critical with myself because I think that some of my examples weren’t exactly multitasking, but something else more akin to coping with the feeling of being pulled in multiple directions all the time. I applaud all students who have made it this far (graduate school) and are determined to continue their education. I believe that no matter how you get it done, whether you use a kind of tunnel vision to keep yourself focused on one task (which I wish I could do more often–just go on and knock out those assignments!!), or just accepting that you have a crazy and somewhat unpredictable schedule at times, like me, it’s important to stop sometimes and give yourself a pat on the back for all the hard work it’s taken to get to where you are!

  • poochy says:

    Thank you for your sharing. I am multi-tasking now, too~! I can’t believe that you can do all those tasks, specifically taking care of your baby. My time is always short even though I don’t have a baby.

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Hi Soo! Sure, I’m happy to share. I want people to know that while it is difficult to be a new parent in graduate school, that it’s not impossible. I think we hear negative things about women (and men) in academia who “put off ________” (and you can fill in the blank with over a dozen life events or activities, etc.) to go to graduate school.

      For me, I have always been driven towards my goals and to me, there’s no reason why I can’t have the moon and stars if I stay persistent, dedicated, and positive about what life has in store for me. I always wanted a family–and a PhD–and the most common question/comment that was asked/said to me when I found out that I was pregnant 2 weeks after my acceptance to VT was “Oh no! What are you going to do about school?!” OR “Oh no! Are you going to still have your baby??” Anyway, I think one of the most beautiful values of U.S. society today is the ability to exercise freedom of choice. So yeah, I chose this life. It’s crazy, hectic, and feels like hell sometimes, but the stress comes and goes. Most of the time, it’s great (even when it’s crazy-stressful) because there’s love in my life and I’m doing what I want, I’m following my dream, and doing what I believe is best for my family.

  • Nicole Arnold says:

    Sara – Your blog post made me feel like I was right there going through your daily routine with you! You deserve a round of applause for all that you do! Thank you for pointing out that sometimes multitasking isn’t much of a choice but a must for some individuals if they are to get all that they need to get done actually somewhat completed.

    I especially enjoyed your spiel about working in your graduate office. Lately, I have found myself working from home fairly often. I do this because I become so distracted with our open graduate desk area in the HABB building. While it is a great place to collaborate with others, I personally have a difficult time concentrating on school work with everyone moving about. I have considered purchasing noise canceling headphones because general headphones just don’t do the trick. I agree with you that there is something special about getting to chat with fellow peers about all the things related to our subsequent fields of work, however this obviously does take up time away from your own work. I have struggled to communicate this to others as they often view this as me “not coming in.” In my defense, I need to get my work done and can do a load of laundry WHILE working on assignments while at home. : )

    It seems as though mindfulness continues to emerge as a theme in this course. While I’ve always identified it as being valuable, I’ve never recognized just how vital it can be to graduate life. With everything swirling around us, it is essential that we be present (in some form) and at most aware of how we are or are not being present – and what or who is affecting that so adjustments can be made if need be.

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Hi Nicole! Thank you for reading my blog this week. I was saying in my reply to Amy’s comment that I was a little critical of myself after I re-read my post because I think I was describing the feeling of being pulled in multiple directions more than multitasking in some of my examples. Either way, it was nice to get it out and share.

      I understand what you’re saying about working from home. I’ve been there! It can be really hard to strike a balance between the social interactions and the imperative to meet deadlines for class or research. I can’t remember who told me this (it might have been a fellow GEDI in class earlier this semester…) but one of the things that you can do if you tend to find yourself in a chatty environment in the office (and you need to work) is to raise your arms up in the air and say something like “hey, no offense, I’m having fun talking, but I have a deadline and I need to work.” Just be blunt about it–polite, of course, but completely straightforward. Sometimes I follow up that sentiment with an offer to make a date for coffee or set aside time to eat lunch with a friend or to just catch up in general–and that helps too! There’s nothing ugly about expressing that you sometimes have got to get some work done! If you make it a practice of communicating openly with your colleagues, you can create a culture in your office space that is respectful of the demands of graduate school without losing friendships or hurting people’s feelings. So in our office, we don’t really hold our arms up when we say this, but we all are kind to one another and are also assertive about our needs. Some days, I do go to the library or other secret places I’ve found on campus that are good for getting work done, but it’s a break that I need less often after employing this strategy of kind, but firm communication.

      And YES to the Mindfulness thing–I never thought I would be using this concept so much in my day to day, but it totally makes sense. It shows up in this class all the time. It shows up in other sessions and activities I’ve attended as well. I hope that more people buy into it–I think it’ll make our communities better all across the board.

  • zlwang says:

    Hi Sara, thank you for the great post! I have already commented on 3 posts, but I do not want to miss yours. I have already been very curious about what it is like to be a PhD student and a new parent at the same time. You have depicted it to be a challenging and much worthy life! It looks like you are really good at balancing life and work. In life, you spend more energy with families and also gain endless love and power from them. In work, you contribute more to your lab mates and then enjoyed an open and friendly lab environment. I do not think that you should be critical of yourself about whether this is multi-tasking. You are multitasking because you have to deal with all kinds of interruptions and switch of attention. What I want to say is that there are good interruptions and bad interruptions. You have such a cute little girl. Lovable interactions with families and inspiring interactions with co-workers are all good interruptions that will make you more energetic and positive. They contribute to your mentality and mind. In comparison, aimlessly picking up cellphones and unconsciously get controlled by technologies are not good ones. Therefore, I would propose that it depends on the tasks included in a multi-tasking and it depends on your goals (not just efficiency, but also love and a meaningful life).

    By the way, if you are using iPhone. This is something I usually do when I am working. I do not need to delete the apps. They can be still useful when we are not working. I will go to General – Restrictions – Apps – Do not allow apps, to temporarily hide the self-installed apps, and unhide them after work.

    • Sara Lamb Harrell says:

      Hey Zhulin! Thanks for reading and commenting on my post this week. I really appreciate the feedback. You make a nice distinction between good and bad interruptions and switching attention. I like to think that when I multitask or break my concentration that it’s not just because I’m unable to hold onto a thought or focus on a task! I agree with you about the aimlessly picking up of a phone–the habit of being tempted away from real life for the sweet fix of a social media check-in. It is a bad habit that even I have had trouble with! I am better about it now, but I have been guilty of the circumstance that you are describing and I’m ashamed of that.

      I really appreciate the iPhone tip. I had no idea there was a setting that would do that. I’m definitely going to use that from now on. It seems like a really healthy compromise to the issue. I have long distance connections I would hate to lose (mostly family and loved ones who update with pictures of their children and I really love to see those.) Thank you for sharing! 😀

  • kgculbertson says:

    Brilliant, as usual, Sara. Thank you for taking the time to post this thoughtful chronology of your day. I remember being a young mother, and totally in love with my daughter, and very often thinking “how” did I manage to get through that day?” I wasn’t a student at the time, but was trying to run my own business attending to the needs of 5-8 very busy and demanding clients.
    At the time, multi-tasking wasn’t a ‘thing’ yet: i referred to what I did as ‘maximizing the seconds’ – meaning I often ate while driving and listening to the news (15 minutes x 3 tasks = 45 effectiveness minutes, or something like that). And, you’re right, your executive functioning and ability to maintain focus does change over time – particularly when you have young children. It’s actually a biological way to keep you focused on caring for your child(ren).
    I really appreciated your reflection on being mindful: I have been working on that myself, and just taking a minute to think about what I’m doing and why can help put me back on track … sometimes. But I am often impacted by those around me who are more interested in what I can do for them than how they can support me, which makes the mindfulness practice tricky.
    I think one of the keys is keeping a sense of humor and maintaining connections with people who feed your soul creatively, energetically, intellectually, supportively and spiritually. I am a bit envious of your work group and the support you seem to be able to derive from it. Glad for you!!

    Keep up the brilliant work. And, by all means, find the time to do what makes you happy. You’ll be glad you’ve developed those habits in the future.

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