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Just Say No to Multitasking

I know, I know, the title, "Just Say No to Multitasking" might sound counter-intuitive. Isn't multitasking a good thing? Aren't women inherently exceptional at it? Sure, we are. But just because we can do it, doesn't mean we should.

Those of us that grew up in the 80s might remember the "Just Say No" campaign which was part of the U.S government's effort to tackle drug abuse. You may already know that using drugs can become habit forming. Drugs create chaos and disorder in the body. They lead to lack of focus and clarity. They create a feeling of dependence. They are addictive. So is multitasking. Hear me out.

As I began writing this article, I was waiting for my computer to load. And I thought to myself, "Here's a second I can use..." as I reached for my phone to write a message that I remembered I hadn't written earlier. But as I started typing in the name of the person I wanted to send a message to, I remembered what this whole article is about: "Just Say No to Multitasking". Why did I feel compelled to fill the space of time it took to wait for my computer to load? Why couldn't I just wait and do nothing as I sat and waited for my computer to load? Hmmmm. Doesn't that seem like a waste of time? Au contraire.

Trying to fill up every shred of time with something to do, is a side effect of multitasking. You see, multitasking is conflated with a sense of accomplishment. Getting a lot done and then checking things off of the list feels good. It feels so good, in fact, that it can become addictive.

Yet what is the price that our bodies pay when we push ourselves more than we should? While I can do more than one thing at a time--heck, I can do ten things at a time-- what toll does it take on my well-being? Does running around all day 'to get things done' help me stay present and focused? Is my body telling me to keep going or to stop? Am I even listening to my body?

What I feel after a day of running around is worn out. Accomplished, perhaps, but again, at what cost? Am I exhausted? Is my body stressed? Do I feel like I am perpetually racing to check things off of a never ending list?

In contrast, what does a day in the life of a non-multitasker look like? Well, let me present, Exhibit A: My husband. While he is familiar with the multitasking phenomenon, he doesn't engage. Consequently, he is rarely overwhelmed or stressed.

If my husband needs to pick up the kids, he picks up the kids. If he needs to go to the store, he goes to the store. In fact, when he goes to the store, he will make an actual list--on paper--and will only buy what is on that list. This is different than when I go to the store. While I also make a list, it's just a draft and for reference purposes only. It is in no way, shape or form finite. The list will be modified accordingly with each passing aisle. And when I go to the store, I don't just go to the store. There are other places that seem pressing at the time as well. Like going to the gas station, the post office, or the bank. Why only complete one task when I can squeeze them all in? There's always something to do, or something that needs to get done. Or is there?

Not according to my husband. In all the years that I've known him, he's never been one to multitask. I used to think that wasn't a good thing; couldn't he do more? I was wrong. He wasn't pushing his body into disarray. Instead, he was responding to stimulus in a balanced way. What's more, he doesn't rush. He engages in the moment. Rather than try to do many things at once, he focuses on one thing at a time. If he's brushing his teeth, he's just brushing his teeth. He isn't looking for missing socks too.

Up until recently, I thought that multitasking was okay, if done in moderation. But what I am coming to realize more and more, is that multitasking in and of itself isn't a moderate act. By definition, multitasking is "the performance of multiple tasks at one time". It necessitates a quick shift in focus from one activity to another. It agitates the nervous system. It creates anxiety. It also doesn't produce great outcomes. Current research also supports this notion and explains that our brain doesn't really do tasks simultaneously like we previously thought. Instead, we switch tasks quickly. It creates a stop/start process in the brain which isn't efficient and leads to more mistakes. Just a few days ago I was talking on the phone while washing the dishes. I was reaching for what I thought was the dish soap but I was so distracted that I reached for a bottle of honey and poured in on the dish brush.

It is somewhat unrealistic to suggest that we never multitask again. I mean, if we can walk and talk at the same time, isn't that multitasking on some level? Yes, but what is the quality of our walking and talking when we do them simultaneously? I don't know about you, but sometimes, I just like to walk without having to talk, so I can focus on my body.

Rather than eliminate the idea of multitasking entirely, perhaps we just need to rethink how we execute the completion of multiple tasks in an organized way. For example, if we look at how a computer completes multiple tasks, it does it with a scheduler. If you've ever tried to run multiple programs simultaneously, you may have noticed how your computer has slowed down or even stopped working entirely. Computers weren't designed to run programs at the same time. Instead, operating systems are designed with schedulers that distribute the CPU (that's the brain of the computer) usage between the different tasks, at different times.

When we are mindful and conscious of how we are carrying out activities, we are more likely to slow down. When we slow down, we are more likely to engage in one thing at a time. When we engage in one thing at a time, we feel more relaxed and balanced. Learning to say 'no' to new tasks in order to focus on one at a time may seem trivial, especially if we know we can handle it. But if we try to say no to a repeated habit just once, we may surprise our self with the clarity and presence in activity that we find.

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