The Ups and Downs of Juggling Several Things At Once, and the Key to Success
I remember, years ago, the first time I heard the word ‘multitasking’. I thought something along these lines: “Wow, those corporate types will think up anything!” If memory serves me (and it doesn’t), I was carrying a baby in a sling while folding laundry, listening for the washer to end so I could switch wet clothes to the dryer, letting the dog out, soaking dishes, letting dough rise, letting the dog in, and avoiding the phone. Multitasking sounded like a new corporate thang, shiny, vague, but obviously evolved for efficiency in a serious boardroom environment. It took me an hour to realize that all that these suits were actually doing was being a Mom.
Multitasking is nothing more than doing several tasks at once to improve output and results. People have been doing it for as long as there have been people…especially little people: the wee one who calls you from one room while another clings to your shirt and another sulks in a loud cloud of silence because he wants your help but he’s too hurt to ask for it.
Now, this practice has its place. It can be very handy to get a bunch of things done within a two hour window so that your afternoon is freed up. However, I have discovered the downside to this and so I consider carefully before implementing Multitask Attainment Zone. It is this: I am sometimes so tired from running around like a chicken with its head cut off that I can’t possibly enjoy those free hours that come later. My back hurts, my arms ache, my head is tired of thinking about so many things at once, and all I want is a nap that I don’t want. So now I implement Multitask Aggregate Assessment Incentive with caution.
It is entirely useful and possible to have eight things going at once. Some of those might be things that can run themselves for a while, like a computer security scan and a clothes dryer. Others need closer attention, like serving a customer face-to-face or knowing what you just agreed to over the phone. Some can be interrupted, like a chapter in a book; some things can never be interrupted, like certain chapters in certain other books. There is probably a formula for how many things the average person can juggle at a time without making mistakes. I would expect that the number of mistakes would rise in proportion to the number of items being multitasked, but that never takes into account the amount of sleep a person had the night before, or the distraction of someone’s smothering perfume. Needless to say, it would become more difficult to juggle more things under greater stress loads. I suppose that means that when you think you are multitasking, say, six assignments, tasks, or chores, you are more likely also juggling the stress and pressure associated with the items as well as the juggling itself. Then there’s all the other stuff going on around you and inside your own head. It becomes ugly quickly. At least it does in that sometimes frenetic place just above my shoulders.
So when I have a to-do list, which is often, I sometimes plan part of my day to actively juggle several tasks at once. I don’t usually plan on multitasking throughout the entire day. I am a low key person. I only get up early in the mornings because I am cursed with Morning Person Personality. Don’t judge my day by how quickly it seems to get underway. That would be like judging the design of the Titanic by the way that champagne bottle broke against its hull.
I multitask, knowing that at any moment my efforts might get derailed by more important things. No matter how important my plans are, there is usually something more important than that. It might be the sudden need of a child or a friend. It might be a bizarre utility letter in the morning mail that requires an immediate follow up phone call while I still care about the travesty of their New Policy Implementation. At any rate, I multitask with an open mind: it may be interrupted, and it may not work even if everything goes smoothly. Then I make sure to schedule, as much as possible, a single-task series of activities. Because single tasking has its perks, as well.
It can be stimulating to take on several tasks at once, set them in motion, supervise their progress, and feel the satisfaction when they all end pretty well after all that effort. I have a love/hate relationship with to-do lists: I make them, then I hate when something stays on the list all week, into next week, demanding my attention. Sometimes I give up and cross it off. Sometimes I make a new list and the (de)pressing issue goes to the top of the list for me to deal with when I am at the height of my curse of Morning Person Personality. It is really cool to cross off several items at once because I multitasked. So cool! Less to do! More book to read!
But as far as I am concerned this does nothing compared to the deep joy of a single task, fallen into, made blind because of, and deafened thereby. Sometimes, during single tasking, time stops and quite possibly ceases to exist. My mind is quiet; my body stilled; my spirit alive with concentration upon the experience I am given. These are precious times in life: a mother sits in no hurry with a child in her lap, reading with utmost relish to the child whose face lights up with imagination and the satisfaction of feeling loved. An artist spends a few pure, solid hours in sketching or writing or stitching. A book lover has fallen so deeply into a story that they can hear the fictional characters and not their own real world. This is what we cannot do when we multitask: we cannot be thoroughly lost in the immense concentration upon one thing that is only possible when we focus upon only one thing. Ask any Buddhist.
So I tend to save the afternoon, if possible, for the single task activities that take as much, if not more, effort than multitasking. This is because when I multitask, I am trying to use my morning energy as efficiently as possible to get as many things done as early in the day as I can because honestly, we never can know exactly what will happen in the next hour. A desperate phone call, smoke pouring from the dish washer, or a bout of sickness can derail a day. On the other hand, I hope that we can also set aside our plans when we see a sun dappled maple tree or notice the elderly neighbor struggling with their garbage can. These could be considered distractions, especially to the goal acquisitive mind frame, a.k.a. The Multitask Blunt Goal Trauma Committee. These moments might be saving graces, which we cannot afford to pass by in our ignorance. They may be reminders of beauty and impulse and serendipity and kindness in the moment. A single moment can carry the weight of a dozen goals achieved if we are in the right place at the right time and we recognize it for what it’s worth. A single moment can carry thousands of consequences that ripple through hours and years and individuals and communities.
Businesses (and homes) need clocks and spread sheets and goals. They have their place. They help maintain civilization, make money, save lives, and reduce chaos. Multitasking is not, by itself, a good thing in any situation. It is only a tool. It is used in situations that are entirely appropriate to save time and effort. It is also used in situations where it is inhumane and contributes only to the suffering in the world. Use multitasking (and single tasking) wisely.
Awareness is the key. To multitask a person needs to keep track of what tasks they are actually doing. To single task a person needs to recognize what is most important at the moment they are given, plunge in, and use their full focus. Each of us needs to develop a sense of when each skill is best applied, and how, as well as what the results might be. There is no guilt in awareness, but there is understanding. There is no fluster in awareness, only calmness in the moment. There is no pressure in awareness, only the sense of growth. With an awakening of awareness, any action we take carries better health within it in general. So when we multitask we can use it for best effectiveness rather than always for efficiency. When we single task, we can do it freely and enjoy what we are doing.
As a stay at home mom, I am grateful for the ability to be flexible, because family life is organic, fluid, and can turn instantaneously messy. I enjoy living in the moment I have, and I enjoy finding new ways to grow. I enjoy living in such a way that I am not a detriment to those around me, and I enjoy thinking about these things. I am a mom, and I don’t just multitask, I momercize. I recommend it for everyone, though they may want to change the name of it to Magnate Task Efficiency Correlation Paradigm Accrual. And no, I can’t make a pithy acronym to save my life.