08/24/2012 01:34 EDT | Updated 10/24/2012 05:12 EDT

Too much at once? In pursuit of efficiency, multitasking may create more problems

TORONTO - Jenny Lutes painted a scene that seemed as chaotic as it was comical.

The mother of two daughters sat rocking baby Madelaine in a chair, pumping milk and snacking on fruit, while also fielding questions from and gluing a craft and cutting paper for her five-year-old, Ava.

"I just thought, `Well, this is comedic.' But this is what it looks like when you're a parent at home with the kids," Lutes recalled.

"For someone else in an office, this would look different. They'd be on the phone and at a computer and writing things down and going through papers.... But to me, in that moment, I was like, `Well, this is almost ridiculous, but I have to do it this way.'"

The Vancouver mom behind the blog Ruminating Mommy detailed the multitasking feat in a recent online post. Lutes said she thinks parents juggle multiple duties as a necessity; but given the option, she'd much rather concentrate on a sole task.

"I would do it well if I could just focus on one thing at a time, but I don't have the luxury; so my attention has to be split seven ways at the same time."

Whether it's a source of chest-thumping pride or wearisome resignation, the common lament of being busy is one that echoes throughout school corridors, workplaces and homes. With a seemingly endless list of to-do's and commitments, many people try to maximize the minutes in their days by balancing various responsibilities at once.

While multitasking may seem to be an efficient way to breeze through a stacked schedule, the juggling act may have the opposite effect — and a detrimental one, at that.

A prime example of the perils of multitasking is perpetuated in the steady proliferation of distracted pedestrians and drivers texting while walking or behind the wheel — incidents which have led in some cases to injuries and even deaths.

"We almost view multitasking with pride. We wear a badge of honour," said Margaret Moore, CEO of Wellcoaches Corporation. "There are job descriptions that say, `You must be a good multitasker.' Well, you know, the challenge here is that we're working against the way the brain was designed to work."

"When you really focus on getting something done, you use all of your brain's resources," she added. "Those are the moments where you're brilliant and creative, and when you see connections and patterns that you don't see when you only use a little bit of your brain's resources."

The Canadian-born, U.S.-based executive wellness coach teamed up with Harvard psychiatrist Paul Hammerness to co-author "Organize Your Mind, Organize Your Life." Hammerness draws on neuroscience in developing his "Rules of Order" for altering mindsets, while Moore — known as Coach Meg — illustrates how to incorporate the organizational rules into everyday life.

Moore said people can get caught up in "negative static" for any number of reasons, from a significant worry to thoughts of tackling a big to-do list.

While negativities may stem from various sources, Moore said it all has the same impact: it "dims the lights," leaving individuals unable to use their full attention.

"It is important to be able to take a deep breath, to mindfully separate yourself from the negativity when you sit down to focus," said Moore, co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School.

"(It's) not that you won't come back to it later. It's not about suppressing it, and it's not about forgetting about it. It's more about (saying): `For the time I want to get something important done, I need to put it aside.'"

Valeri Hall Little of Intandem Productivity Solutions said being strapped for time is among the main concerns expressed by clients. Some feel overwhelmed because their workloads are expanding as timeframes to finish tasks remains fixed.

"They end up bringing work home and they don't want to live their life like that," she said. "They want to be in the moment with their families and enjoying their friends, and they don't want to constantly be interrupted with their smartphone buzzing and checking emails."

The Toronto-based productivity consultant said she likes to have clients think of time as a tangible item.

"People always just think of time as something that they can always get more of. `Oh, well, I won't sleep as long,' ` I'll eat my lunch and answer my emails at the same time,'" said Hall Little. "I like them to think about their day or their week or their month as a container, and think about the goals that they need to achieve in that amount of time."

She has them visualize what needs to be accomplished in a given day and how it feeds into bigger-picture goals set for work, clients and themselves. From there, they assess what needs to be done — like attending meetings, returning calls and checking emails — and helps chunk their day into intervals.

Another trick she uses is have clients time tasks — a strategy she uses herself. She'll devote an hour to write an article, set a timer and turns off all other distractions. The method has helped to cut her writing time in half.

Lutes has employed a timing strategy of her own at home as a way to cope. She said she may try to dedicate a two-hour window for household chores or making the baby's foods for the week. On other days, she'll leave it open.

"I have to do both to make sure I'm not overscheduling myself, and it depends on the day. I need to be flexible so that I can feel like I'm accomplishing what I want to and what I need to, but I also don't drive myself crazy."

Hall Little said while employees do feel a certain amount of pressure to be working around the clock, it's important they set expectations that they aren't always accessible.

She can recall receiving auto email responses from people indicating they only check emails once daily, and instructing to call if a matter is urgent. "I think that's brilliant because it sets my expectations."

Moore said it's key the example is set from the top down in fostering a corporate culture that emphasizes handling one task at a time.

"If you don't model that, then everybody falls into the trap."



Coach Meg:

Intandem Productivity Solutions:

Ruminating Mommy: