The Lie of Multitasking
Over the last few years I have listened to hundreds of audiobooks. I listened to them while doing laundry, while driving, while cooking, while watching the children play. I felt that I was wasting my time simply doing those tasks, and that I could make better use of my time by listening to a book at the same time. The problem is, I never absorbed any of the information. I remember very little, to nothing, from all of those novels, self help books, and others.
Not too long ago, I sat down to read a novel - yes, with my eyes - and I found that I couldn’t concentrate on the story. This was scary. Books have been part of my life for so long, and the fear that I could no longer enjoy them was frightening. Eventually, I was able to focus my attention on the book and enjoy it, but it required a lot more effort than I was expecting. Splitting my attention between multiple things for so long had made it hard to focus on just one thing when I needed to.
The audiobooks weren’t the only things dividing my attention; it was Facebook, YouTube, phone notifications, news headlines, and the list could go on and on. Even now as I write this I am occasionally getting distracted by my email. Our brains can’t effortlessly change from one thing to another, there is a price to be paid. “Even brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time.”
Being unable to focus on a novel wasn’t the first warning sign. I would often get distracted in the middle of a task resulting in half folded laundry on the bed, dishes left on the counter and many other unfinished tasks scattered throughout the house. After the incident with the book, I was finally willing to listen when Nathan or one of my children asked me to put down my phone when I was talking to them.
I knew I couldn’t change overnight and I couldn’t change alone. I needed help on this journey. I asked Nathan to be my coach, to help me see when I was making progress or to remind me when I slid back into old habits. Like everyone else I am often blind to my own flaws and need someone else to help me see, and motivate me with praise when I am doing well.
Over the last few months I have started to learn more about mindfulness. The technique of focusing one's awareness on the present moment. What are we thinking about when our children are talking to us, are we thinking about the baskets of laundry we need to fold. What are we thinking about during sex, are we wishing we could lose a couple more pounds? What are we thinking about when we first wake up in the morning, are we immediately worrying about everything that needs to get done? Instead, we should give our focus to our current moment. Enjoy it.
One of the specific things that I am currently working on is that when I start a task, I keep going until I have completed it. When I think I am done, I stop and do a final check to make sure that the job has been done well, then I take a moment to acknowledge what I have accomplished. I want that endorphin rush that comes from a job well done, instead of rushing on to the next task before I have time to recognize my achievement.
There is no quick fix. I will continue to work on this but I know when I stay focused I can enjoy each moment so much more. I am not going to say that I will never listen to another audiobook, because that isn’t true, but I will be more deliberate about when and where I do it.
I want my brain back. I don’t want to go through my life in a fog of distraction and disconnection. I can handle being fully present in the good times as well as the hard times and to do this I need to learn how to stay mindful of the distractions around me and stay focused one task at a time.
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