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Is Monotasking the Answer to Your Parenting Stress?

If you’re overwhelmed from always doing (at least) two things at once, this Boulder dad could have the key to becoming a happier parent.

Multitasking is practically a parenting badge of honor: “I can make dinner while talking on the phone and soothing a crying baby.” “I’ve found a way to turn folding laundry into a method to help the kids with math homework.” “I can make work calls during T-ball practice.” This kind of frenetic pace seems to work…until you find yourself ladling your phone from a pot of simmering spaghetti sauce, or texting your boss instead of your babysitter. And mishaps and embarrassing slips aren’t the only results of constant multitasking; keep it up, and before too long, you’ll be running on empty. 

Thatcher Wine, a father and author of The Twelve Monotasks, has been a parent pulled in a million different directions. He’s also gone through tough challenges over the years, including divorce and his own battle with cancer. Through the ups and downs of life, the Boulder dad realized that if he gave his full attention to one thing at a time, what he calls monotasking, he could do each thing well and enjoy it more. He could even process the challenging stuff more effectively.

His ideology is this: Do one thing at a time to do everything better. Turn multitasking into monotasking and you’ll become a more present, productive, and happier person. The impacts this approach has on parenting are endless, says Wine. For example, you can be more in the moment with your kids, listen better to the needs of your partner, and give your full focus to the things that matter most. 

Wine points out that because home and family are extremely important, they both can be a source of stress and anxiety. “There is typically a never-ending list of things to do, and some family members can trigger our worst behaviors and feelings,” he notes. “Monotasking can help us try to change things.”

There are twelve key monotasks that serve as the core of Wine’s book. The three that are most relevant to parenting are listening, thinking, and sleeping (yes, even those of you with newborns). Wine says that monotasking is about “making the choice for ourselves where our attention goes in every moment.” 

Monotasking skills won’t crop up overnight, especially when you’ve become programmed to multitask, but with Wine’s tips, you can work on being more intentional about how you spend your time. 

We put down our phones and hid our to-do lists to have a focused conversation with Wine about how to bring monotasking into our lives:

Colorado Parent: How can we monotask in parenting? How can it impact our kids?

Thatcher Wine: Our kids love it when we give them our attention. We should find ways to give our kids more of our full attention, not our partial or multitasking attention. We should also show our children what it looks like for us as parents to monotask other things in life—driving for example, or getting our work done. My children can see the similarities between my ability to focus on them, and my focus on other things in life. They may not always like it when I can’t give them my full attention, but they always appreciate it when I do. 

CP: Why is it important to monotask when we listen to our kids? 

TW: All too often, especially when kids or parents have a phone in hand, or there is a television on in the background, or multiple things are happening around the house at the same time, we only have partial attention to devote to listening. This results in less being heard and a lot less being understood or felt. We can strengthen our connection to others by listening and being fully present in conversations, that is how we can be empathetic to what someone else is truly feeling. Children don’t necessarily have the communication skills to express their ideas or their feelings in the direct way that adults might prefer, so listening to your children with full attention is one of the most important things you can do in life. Put the devices away, turn off the distractions, pause what you’re doing or find a quiet space to talk. The benefits are worth it.

CP: What’s a parent to do when we can’t give kids our full attention?

TW: Create opportunities to monotask in parallel to them—perhaps you do your work while they do their homework at the same table. The whole world right now is set up to encourage multitasking and fragmented attention. We have to reverse that trend in order to maintain a close connection to those we love and get more things done well.

CP: How can parents who are going through a challenging life event, whether it’s divorce, a health diagnosis, or stressful work situation, use monotasking to recenter and move forward?

TW: The first step is to bring awareness to what you’re doing in any given moment when you might feel stressed and overwhelmed. Are you trying to do more than one thing at a time? If so, take away one task at a time until you only have one left. That one task might be playing with your kids, getting your work done, working out, or socializing with friends. Do something with your full focus in order to reconnect with who you are, and with the people you may be with. You don’t have to monotask all day long, but make a conscious choice about what you are monotasking and what you are multitasking. Make sure the choice is yours, don’t let your attention get hijacked by your phone, or by others who are distracting you, such as a former partner. Once you start recognizing distractions as distractions, you will be better able to resist them and apply your attention to what you need and want to do. 

CP: In your book, you talk about monotasking sleep, or prioritizing and optimizing sleep. What does that look like?

TW: There are two parts to monotasking sleep. The first part is about preparing to get a good night’s sleep, and the second part is about what happens during the night. Before bed, optimize your household’s sleep schedule by having set meal times, turning down bright lighting, disconnecting from devices, and focusing on other aspects of your routine in order to set yourself up for success—don’t wait until you’re tired and your children are cranky. Make notes and continue to make changes day after day and react to new phases, trying out new strategies and seeing what works. During the night, give yourself permission to monotask your sleep. Don’t stay up late working until you fall asleep exhausted with your laptop in the bed, it’s better to get quality sleep and plan to get more done early the next day. Also try not to reach for your phone in the middle of the night, it will only make you more awake and result in getting less sleep. The early years are a lot of work and you need as much sleep as you can get. Take naps if you need to. The more rest you get, the better you’ll be able to parent and get everything done. Also, the better quality sleep you get, the more you will remember these years, because memories are created during a healthy and deep sleep cycle.

CP: How can busy parents scale back on the chaos in their lives?  

TW: I believe in living a full life and doing all the things we want to do. But we should do them one at a time; we shouldn’t combine multiple tasks in each moment. This can be hard to do, especially with little kids and working from home. But find a few minutes here and there where you can focus on your kids, then focus on your work, then focus on your self care, separately. These little blocks of monotasking will help you strengthen what I call your “monotasking muscles.” We’re all so distracted by modern life and especially by our devices, that we’ve let these muscles atrophy. The result is that we become very susceptible to being distracted by one more notification on our phones, or we can’t put our phones down, or we just can’t focus when we do have free time and need to get our work done. It’s not our fault, this is just the way the world has been in the 21st century. Be gentle on yourself and start to rebuild your monotasking muscles to reclaim your attention.  

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