I recently spent a week consciously avoiding multitasking. It was more difficult than I expected. I love to listen to CD’s of books or music when I drive and like most modern mothers, my phone is never far away. I was surprised how often I found myself reaching for my phone. Of course it is no longer just a phone but really a handheld computer. I use it for e-mail, internet searches, twitter, facebook and LinkdIn. I didn’t think of myself as someone who was constantly tethered to her phone but when I consciously stopped multi-tasking the truth was revealed to me!
During this experiment there were things I missed. The recorded books on CD were a big one. But if I had not refrained from listening to them I would not have had the following experience. One day while I was driving I had a huge realization. I have struggled for several years with limiting the amount of TV my son watched. He was always pushing for more time in front of the TV and when I made him turn it off he would often have a meltdown. I tried negotiating plans, imposing my own schedule, threatening to eliminate it completely but nothing resolved this endless battle. As I was driving in silence, I suddenly had a huge realization. My son had not watched TV at all until he was 2 ½ years old. I was six months pregnant and we found out our baby was not going to survive. This sent my husband and I into an intense period of grieving. I gave birth in the hospital and was there overnight. It was the first time my son spent the night away from me. This is when we started watching TV. At the time I was so sensitive and raw that every human contact hurt. I did my best to continue to take him to play groups but when we were alone we would spend hours watching cartoons. Of course I had always known that this was how TV entered his life but I had never before connected his strong attachment to TV to the deep emotions present when he began watching. I realized that perhaps he unconsciously experienced turning off the TV as a form of love withdrawal. I also realized that perhaps I held some ambivalence or lack of clarity around this issue because it touched off in me some painful memories. I truly don’t believe I would have had this powerful experience had I been multi-tasking.
As my week went on I noticed that I felt more focused and calm. I realized it was easier to get the kitchen clean and my kids yelled for my attention less. I just felt more tuned in to my environment. I have learned that quickly checking my email or facebook while cooking really isn’t the best use of my time or attention. Now that the week is over, I have returned to listening to my CDs and music when I drive, but now I ask myself, would I benefit from a quiet drive? Sometimes the answer is yes and I drive in silence.
Multitasking makes us feel like we are being more productive. But research shows that it makes us less productive, more prone to making mistakes, reduces our ability to understand and remember concepts and it adds to the feeling that there is never enough time to get everything done. All religions value time for quiet contemplation and many traditions point to the importance of appreciating the present moment. Multitasking takes you out of the present moment by dividing your attention and thereby taking your mind away from what is in front of you. When your mind is constantly occupied by multiple activities, there is no time to enjoy the feeling of the water on your hands as you wash the dishes, or to fully appreciate the taste and texture of the food you are eating. We consume entertainment and information voraciously and in the process miss opportunities to enjoy the simple things in life.
I encourage you to try not multitasking for a week. What will you learn? What will you experience? Sometimes the constant buzz of activities and divided attention suppresses important feelings. It makes us less attentive to the moment and the people in our lives. When a child hurts themselves when we are making dinner, or wakes up early and interrupts our meditation, these interruptions cannot be avoided. But take a close look at your habits; I bet that like me, you create your own interruptions, thinking that it is an efficient use of time or you simply crave entertainment as you complete endless chores. Try removing these distractions and focus on one thing at a time. You may not have a huge realization as I did, but maybe you will and I am sure you will learn something about yourself.