Blog Parents

Two, Not Twenty

By Sarah Arthur on Thursday, December 20, 2018


The more plates I try to keep spinning, the more likely I am to have them all fall and shatter. You know the feeling. The holidays often bring it on. The over-packed schedule…too many events to attend, the multiplying gift list, and entertaining. It generally leads me to forgetfulness—or a migraine! Today, I set up a training session for a new employee but forgot to invite her to it! I have, in the last week, left my briefcase, my phone, and my keys behind—all in separate incidents. I am pretty certain I’m not alone. Some of you showed up somewhere without a gift you prepared to bring and found it on the kitchen table when you came home. You may have forgotten to get your car’s oil changed before the out of town trip and then run out of time. Perhaps you realized you forgot a key ingredient in your famous lasagna when guests were already arriving.

Whether it’s too many plates to keep spinning or too much on your plate, we generally have a greater expectation of what we can accomplish than is realistic. Nancy Napier, in an article for Psychology Today, calls it “the myth of multitasking.” Our culture tells us we should be able to read, listen to music, and keep a text conversation going, all at the same time. Neuroscience research tells us otherwise. Our brains are programmed to start and stop each task. When we are juggling more than one at a time, rather than shaving time off of tasks, each tiny transition between tasks layers in more stops and starts. This is far less efficient in the long run than concentrating on one thing at a time. Napier says that multitasking is really “switchtasking” which takes more time and reduces effectiveness.

On the other hand, McChesney, Covey, and Huling’s book The Four Disciplines of Execution – tells us the less we aim for the more we actually accomplish. The authors propose that in order to reach goals, we need to set fewer of them at a time. When there is less to juggle at once, we stay motivated and maintain our focus on the goal. The Four Disciplines of Execution acknowledges “There will always be more good ideas than there is capacity to execute.” All good ideas will seem important but maintaining focus on one or two “WIGS” (wildly important goals) will ultimately bring more success than aiming for 20. The authors cite studies proving that when we choose 20 goals, we get one or two accomplished. If in the same available time we choose one or two goals, we’ll also finish one or two but likely with more satisfaction – and sanity.

We really already know how this works. We get excited to use our one free weekend to start multiple house projects and months later most are still in progress (or stalled). If we take the same weekend and choose to paint one room, it generally gets done in a day or two. The same principle applies to parenting. If I have multiple goals for my limited time with my student, I end up overloading both of us. If I set one or two deliberate goals for their time at home, we can generally both be satisfied.

Our time with our young adult children is more limited. How do we want to spend it? Let’s pick one or two achievable goals instead of making a multitasking mess. What is your wildly important goal with your son or daughter? Creating a memory together? Then focus time on a shared experience. Building their organizational skills? Then buy a planner and offer to demonstrate how to use it. Working on their character? Asking them to read a biography together of a man or woman you deeply admire can open up good dialogue. On the other hand, is there a chance that parenting a young adult also means turning the corner to shared goals? What does your student feel really motivated about? Can you set aside a goal you might have and ask how you can support them reaching their own?

I like to encourage conversation by inviting my son to sit and have a cup of tea with me. I literally have about 20 varieties in the cupboard so there are always choices to make. Green tea or chamomile? English Breakfast or Earl Grey? Sugar or honey? All of them are good choices or I wouldn’t have selected them as possibilities, but realistically, we can each only drink one cup at a time. Perhaps my next goal for time with my young man is to ask him to join me for tea and then have some conversation about what is at the top of the list for his wildly important goals.