Is Multi-tasking an Over-rated Virtue?

by Nadine McNeil

(reprinted from Apr 2, 2011 Elephant Journal)

Multi-tasking:  The ability to successfully do more than one thing at a time. Interestingly enough, a quick Internet search for its definition reveals that the term is directly linked to computing. Check this out, http://dictionnaire.reverso.net/anglais-cobuild/multi-tasking where:

Multi-tasking is a situation in which a computer or person does more than one thing at the same time.

This past week, we had an official holiday on Tuesday. I took this opportunity to do a bit of spring-cleaning, an exercise that I found to be physically as well as psychically liberating. Indeed, Zen moments can be found while clearing out a closet, going through the stack of ‘essential’ papers whose importance seem to wane over time, washing the dishes and tossing left-overs from the refrigerator.

However, at one point in this therapeutic process mindfulness returned and I caught myself trying to drink the smoothie that I’d made several minutes earlier, sorting out a drawer that held a kaleidoscope of odds and ends – paper clips, shirt buttons, business calling cards, pens, pencils, spools of thread and ah, my red lipstick that I thought I’d lost AND surfing the internet for some information. Oh, one more thing: the anti-aging facial mask that should have been washed off after 15 minutes had now been on for so long that my face had tightened to such an extent, I felt like a mummified statue!

In this instant of my own neurosis, I was bent over in laughter. How many things did I truly think I could manage to do successfully with my energy scattered all over the place like this?!

For at least a decade, one’s ability to do several things at once, under the term ‘multi-tasking’ has been a staple on job advertisements, especially for those in administrative and managerial type occupations…

It is the nature of the mind to wander – this is clear. However in our modern world, we’ve seduced ourselves into believing that efficiency is measured by one’s ability to engage the mind, body and spirit into a virtually schizoid state in a desperate attempt to be efficient multi-taskers!

In the long run, multi-tasking can and does put the human being under a tremendous amount of unnecessary stress, without possibly even realizing it.

Here are a few classic examples that I’ve witnessed in myself this week: on three different occasions with kitchen mittens on all prepared to remove a casserole from the oven, I’ve found myself standing in front of the refrigerator wandering “what did I come here for?”

Leaving my office to walk to someone else’s and halfway down the corridor, having no recollection of where I’m headed. When I re-traced my steps recollection returned, otherwise I may have begun to seriously question my sanity. Yesterday’s latest episode – reaching for the telephone to call someone and then as my hand connected with the receiver, recognizing that somewhere in that mili-second of time, my brain had disconnected and forgotten who I’d intended to call.

Concerned that I may be losing it or having an early onset of Alzheimer’s, I timidly shared with a colleague my concern at the fact that lately, I seem to be re-naming folk:  Cynthia to Christine, Marie Clare to Marie Louse, David Bowden to Richard Dowden are just a few examples. In turn, he re-counted and shared with me his typical day:

He’s drafting e-mail and the phone rings. In the midst of this, his assistant comes in with an important document for him to sign.  Responsibly he must read what he affixes his signature to so he begins that process. Suddenly, someone sticks his/her head into his door asking, “you have a few minutes?” Priding himself on being a manager with an open door policy, “sure” he responds.  Ten minutes later, he’s left with a pile of unfinished business – he needs to return the call of the person he had to cut off in order to sign the document for which he’s only scanned the information and can barely remember it, in fact, he’s confused it with the e-mail he was drafting and whoever stuck their head in the door has gone away with clarity while he’s left in a muddle of confusion, nowhere further in fact perhaps having even fallen behind than he was 20 minutes prior.

Multi-tasking is beginning to look pretty over-rated to me. I’m certain that the growing appeal of [relaxation practices such as] yoga for many of us is the fact that it potentially serves as the one moment in our day where we’re not literally racing from pillar to post … [W]e grant ourselves permission to pause so that we’re able to re-collect our entire selves and re-emerge into the frenetic world indeed feeling more ‘together’ than perhaps at the start of our practice.

Conclusion:  … Give ourselves the permission to slow ourselves down so that we’re able to bring attention and focus to our activities.  Truly, very little in our lives is so pressing that we cannot allow ourselves a few moments of slow, deep, energizing, re-vitalizing breaths.  After all, we are living human beings and not non-living computers!

I’m off to make my smoothie before the phone starts ringing.

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