Monday, April 7, 2014

Mindful Monday: multitasking

I used to wear heels every day - black, patent leather. I loved them. I wore pencil skirts and button down shirts. I rode the metro to work and did the crossword puzzle and listened to NPR en route. At the same time. When I got to work I checked my email and flipped through the stack of papers next to my computer. At the same time. I made phone calls and alphabetized my stack of filing. At the same time.

I was a multi-tasking master. Oh yeah. I felt competent and efficient. "Ability to multi-task" was a prominent bullet point on my resume.

Now I actively try not to multi-task. I've read about flow theory and that make sense to me. Ten years ago when my Spanish was pretty good, I would suddenly realize that I was having a conversation with someone in Spanish without trying to translate what they were saying or trying to figure out how to conjugate a verb. I was completely engrossed in the task at hand and, without knowing it, I was in flow. Flow theory demands a single-minded focus on one activity. Such focus can lead to joy, competence, and a high quality end-product.

Multi-tasking, on the other hand, is defined by dividing your energy and concentration to various tasks, at the same time. Three jobs are done at once; productivity is high; quantity is high. But what about quality? If I'm trying to make muffins and feed my 12-month-old at the same time, it only seems inevitable that I'll leave out the leavening or use salt instead of sugar. Sure, I can make muffins and feed a baby at once, but would those muffins be edible? Multi-tasking emphasizes quantity over quality, while flow encourages the opposite.

Illustration credit:
I would love to experience flow on a daily basis, but it's nearly impossible when I am taking care of two young children. I'm always being pulled from one direction to the next. If, by some miracle, they are both happily playing without me, I rarely get involved in my own project because I know the tranquility will only last for a few minutes.

Multi-taskers are able to produce a lot by the end of the day, yet the final product may be shoddy, lacking in creativity, or riddled with mistakes. Yet flow may be hard, if not impossible, to achieve in a typical work environment because of external demands: the phone, email, coworkers. Is there a middle ground? I think so. I think it's possible to strive to create a daily environment that is more conducive to flow.

The next time you're doing three different things, stop. Stop doing one thing, finish the two you were working on and then complete the third. Instead of making a phone call to a relative and doing something else at the same time, sit down and simply talk on the phone. Wash dishes in silence. Watch TV and do nothing else. (No knitting, no checking email, no folding laundry. Eating chocolate is okay.) Do one job at a time at work. Less emphasis on multi-tasking can lead to higher quality work and a more peaceful, less stressful work environment. It's worth a try.

Children don't know how to multi-task:
Freja exhibiting intense concentration as she learns to use scissors.

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