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Playful Self-Discipline: Mindfulness and Multitasking

It’s Thursday and time to check in with my Playful Self-Discipline project! This month I’m writing about Mindfulness, and last week I wrote about meditation as a tool for developing a mindful attitude and increasing self-discipline. This week I’m taking a good hard look at multitasking.

Multitasking and Motherhood

Before I became a mother I wasn’t especially good at multitasking. If I was studying for an exam I always had to have the TV and radio turned off, and I found I got my best work done in the near-absolute silence of the University library. Single-tasking in a low-distraction environment was my preferred mode of working, and that worked out just fine most of the time.

Motherhood immediately demanded that I be able to multitask. Once Bea was born I needed to be able to cook dinner AND watch the baby at the same time. I became great at nursing and surfing the internet at the same time, or nursing and reading a book, or nursing and carrying on a conversation. Things got a little hairy when I tried to calm a screaming child and parallel park at the same time. Or pay for my groceries, talk to the clerk, bounce the cranky baby and keep ahold of the rambunctious toddler at the same time. Or cook dinner, comment on a blog post, listen to the radio, answer a question from an inquisitive preschooler and keep tabs on the toddler running around the house with the black marker at the same time. Which I have discovered that I am attempting (and often failing) to do on a regular basis. It usually means that dinner gets burnt, the couch has marker on it, the preschooler feels ignored and I am totally frazzled.

melancholy kite

Lessons in Mindfulness

My short daily meditation sessions and ongoing daily attempts to be more mindful during my everyday life have helped me realize just how distracted and “tuned out” I often am. I’m searching for the playfulness in this, in being able to accept that my starting point right now is one of static and absentmindedness. I want to just let all that go, the marker and the burnt carrots and the droning radio, and let it fly up and out of my hands like a kite being carried away by the wind. But I find that I’m still clamping down hard on the string. I don’t know how to let go of multitasking when the very nature of parenting two children at once demands a split in my attention. Even if I only had one child, I’d need to get the dishes and laundry done too. I know that a good place to start would be putting the computer away during the day, but I resist that as well. I want to stay in touch with my email and RSS and all those pleasing distractions that give me somewhere to let my monkey mind run on and on. At the same time, a life of voluntary simplicity sounds peaceful and appealing. Peter Bregman wrote a very convincing article on How and Why to Stop Multitasking.

Just Be

Part of what I want to achieve with Mindfulness is the ability to just be where I am and not habitually pick up a book, read a website or run through my mental to-do list. I want to actually be present in my life. In Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn, he says,

“The impulse frequently arises in me to squeeze another this or that into this moment. Just this phone call, just stopping off here on my way there. Never mind that it might be in the opposite direction. I’ve learned to identify this impulse and mistrust it. I work hard at saying no to it. It would have me eat breakfast with my eyes riveted to the cereal box, reading for the hundredth time the dietary contents of the contents, or the amazing free offer from the company. This impulse doesn’t care what it feeds on, as long as it’s feeding.”

Multitasking is absolutely this same impulse in action. By trying to do many things at once we’re attempting to squeeze more things into a finite amount of time, but what ends up happening is that more of those things end up done badly or even not done at all.

My past week has been a busy one with more struggle than playfulness, more letting things slide than staying disciplined. I’m reminding myself that this project is a process, a work in progress. And as they say, you can’t make any progress until you know where you’re starting from.

Do you multitask in your daily life? How do you keep a handle on it?

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{ 2 comments… add one }

  • Rachael February 10, 2011, 12:50 pm

    It’s funny that you use the image of a kite in relation to mindfulness. I tend to think of my mind as a kite that is floating around up there when it should be here. I have to keep on reeling it in, reeling it in, reeling it in.

    I certainly try to multitask far more often than I should. One of my big questions is, How much can I honestly do in one day? You know, instead of trying to cram it all in. If I ever do figure it out, I’ll let you know….
    Rachael´s last blog post ..Every Day Is Special

    • michelle February 10, 2011, 3:15 pm

      Thanks. :) I suspect I’d feel much more satisfied and productive if I chose more carefully just a few things to do that were really important to me rather than getting pulled in by anything and everything that catches my eye.

      The mind as kite analogy makes a lot of sense… When I chose that photo I thought it would be more fitting it he was trying to fly 30 kites at once – which is what multitasking feels like. One kite seems very peaceful in comparison. But I ran out of time to choose another photo!

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